Purpose: Noninvasive in vivo observations of the anterior human cornea were performed to study cell structure and dynamics. Cellular elements were identified by their location, morphology, and pattern of movement. The hypothesis that cells in the epithelial layer of the normal cornea migrate centripetally was tested.
Methods: Using a scanning slit confocal microscope with a new 0.75-numeric aperture contact objective, individual cells of normal human corneas were observed over time, quantifying the velocity and direction of cellular movement within the basal epithelial layer.
Results: Basal epithelial cells, wing cells, the basal epithelial nerve plexus, and the subepithelial nerve plexus were identified readily. Centripetal motion was observed for three corneal cell types: basal epithelial cells, basal epithelial nerves, and unidentified cellular elements (possibly Langerhans cells). The unidentified cellular elements moved along the length of the basal epithelial nerves. The basal epithelial nerve plexus maintained a roughly stable topology as it slid centripetally. New nerve material appeared at the site of entry of the nerve into the epithelium. No growth cones were present at the distal termini of the growing epithelial nerves.
Conclusion: In the midperiphery of the normal human cornea, basal epithelial cells and nerves slide centripetally, probably in concert. Unidentified cellular elements used the basal epithelial nerve plexus as a pathway for intraepithelial movement. Observations in this study suggest that neurite growth occurred by the addition of new membrane material along the length of the axon rather than at a distal growth cone.