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PLoS One. 2014 Mar 17;9(3):e92027. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0092027. eCollection 2014.

Dual innervation of neonatal Merkel cells in mouse touch domes.

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Department of Neuroscience, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America.


Merkel cell-neurite complexes are specialized mechanosensory end organs that mediate discriminative touch sensation. It is well established that type I slowly adapting (SAI) mechanoreceptors, which express neural filament heavy chain (NFH), innervate Merkel cells. It was previously shown that neurotrophic factor NT3 and its receptor TrkC play crucial roles in controlling touch dome Merkel cell innervation of NFH+ fibers. In addition, nerve fibers expressing another neurotrophic tyrosine receptor kinase (NTRK), Ret, innervate touch dome Merkel cells as well. However, the relationship between afferents responsive to NT3/TrkC signaling and those expressing Ret is unclear. It is also controversial if these Ret+ fibers belong to the early or late Ret+ DRG neurons, which are defined based on the co-expression and developmental dependence of TrkA. To address these questions, we genetically traced Ret+ and TrkC+ fibers and analyzed their developmental dependence on TrkA. We found that Merkel cells in neonatal mouse touch domes receive innervation of two types of fibers: one group is Ret+, while the other subset expresses TrkC and NFH. In addition, Ret+ fibers depend on TrkA for their survival and normal innervation whereas NFH+ Merkel cell innervating fibers are almost unaltered in TrkA mutant mice, supporting that Ret+ and NFH+/TrkC+ afferents are two distinct groups. Ret signaling, on the other hand, plays a minor role for the innervation of neonatal touch domes. In contrast, Merkel cells in the glabrous skin are mainly contacted by NFH+/TrkC+ afferents. Taken together, our results suggest that neonatal Merkel cells around hair follicles receive dual innervation while Merkel cells in the glabrous skin are mainly innervated by only SAI mechanoreceptors. In addition, our results suggest that neonatal Ret+ Merkel cell innervating fibers most likely belong to the late but not early Ret+ DRG neurons.

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