Cellular terrain surrounding sympathetic nerve pathways in the rat orbit: comparisons of orbital connective tissue and smooth muscle cell phenotypes

J Comp Neurol. 1998 Nov 2;400(4):529-43. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1096-9861(19981102)400:4<529::aid-cne7>3.0.co;2-c.


Sympathetic axons are abundant within some orbital tissues but are absent from others. This study investigated cellular phenotypes of tissues containing sympathetic nerves en passage and compared these with phenotypes in regions devoid of sympathetic nerves and with smooth muscle targets. Two primary orbital smooth muscle targets, the tarsal muscle and orbital muscle, contained many synaptophysin-immunoreactive nerves. Target cells had ultrastructural features typical of smooth muscle and were immunoreactive for alpha-smooth muscle actin, smooth muscle myosin heavy chain, desmin, vinculin, and laminin, but not non-muscle myosin, vimentin, fibronectin, or type IV collagen; nerve growth factor (NGF) mRNA was detected by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction. Periorbital sheath devoid of sympathetic nerves contained elongated fibroblasts that were immunoreactive for vimentin, non-muscle myosin, and fibronectin, but not for alpha-smooth muscle actin, smooth muscle myosin heavy chain, vinculin, desmin, laminin, or type IV collagen, and did not express NGF mRNA. Regions of periorbital sheath containing sympathetic nerves had few synaptophysin-immunoreactive varicosities. Cells in this region contained myofilaments, ribosomes, and rough endoplasmic reticulum and were larger than tarsal muscle cells. They expressed NGF mRNA and showed a unique immunophenotype, reacting for vimentin, alpha-smooth muscle actin and myosin heavy chain, desmin, vinculin, laminin, and type IV collagen. This phenotype reflects both fibroblast and smooth muscle features similar to myofibroblasts or transdifferentiated smooth muscle described in other tissues. The spatial association between these cells and sympathetic nerves suggests that they may be involved in axon guidance or maintenance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Connective Tissue Cells / metabolism
  • Connective Tissue Cells / physiology
  • Fluorescent Antibody Technique
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Muscle, Smooth / cytology
  • Muscle, Smooth / metabolism
  • Muscle, Smooth / physiology
  • Nerve Growth Factors / genetics
  • Neural Pathways / cytology
  • Neural Pathways / metabolism
  • Orbit / cytology
  • Orbit / innervation*
  • Orbit / metabolism
  • Phenotype
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Rats / anatomy & histology*
  • Rats / physiology
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / cytology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / metabolism
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*


  • Nerve Growth Factors
  • RNA, Messenger