Density and organization of free nerve endings in the corneal epithelium of the rabbit

Pain. 1982 Oct;14(2):105-120. doi: 10.1016/0304-3959(82)90092-6.


Many questions regarding the organization and the density of corneal intraepithelial terminals remain unanswered in spite of the extensive work that has been done on corneal innervation. In the present study, we employed light microscopic observations of gold-impregnated, serial cross-sections of rabbit cornea to document the assumed, but hitherto uncalculated high density of intraepithelial terminals. Our results showed that the innervation density of corneal epithelium was about 300-600 times that of skin and 20-40 times that of tooth pulp. The density of epithelial innervation was seen to decrease from the center of the cornea to the periphery. Serial cross-sections and flat mounts were used in the three-dimensional reconstruction of the organizational design of corneal terminals. From the subepithelial plexus, axons were seen to penetrate the epithelium, forming terminals that either diverged or branched vertically and horizontally. The vertical axons extended toward the outer cell layer. Horizontal axons developed into families of leashes with disorganized terminal branches and endings. The density and organizational geometry of corneal terminals, together with the correlations between their anatomical uniqueness and the types of sensations elicited by their stimulation, suggest that the cornea is a useful model for the study of experimental acute pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / ultrastructure
  • Cornea / innervation*
  • Cornea / physiology
  • Epithelial Cells
  • Epithelium / anatomy & histology*
  • Nerve Endings / cytology*
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Rabbits
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology
  • Skin / innervation