Development of Merkel Cell Populations with Contrasting Sensitivities to Neonatal Deafferentation in the Rat Whisker Pad
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In this study, we used the quinacrine fluorescence technique to investigate the embryonic and early postnatal development of two distinct populations of Merkel cells in the rat whisker pad and the consequences of neonatal deafferentation on their subsequent development. Annular clusters of Merkel cells first appear in the epidermis near the caudal margin of the mystacial region between embryonic days E14 and E15 at dome sites located on horizontal ridges where the primordial vibrissal follicles develop. The development of these cells progresses in a caudorostral sequence across the whisker pad as does the development of the vibrissal follicles. Each cluster eventually forms a conical ridge or collar of about 130 Merkel cells that surrounds the vibrissal hair shaft as it penetrates the overlying pad epidermis. In the vibrissae, which develop as downgrowths from the horizontal ridges at the dome sites, Merkel cells first appear (caudally) between E16 and E17 and form a cylindrical cuff within the outer root sheath; cells are added progressively until about the end of the first postnatal week when a plateau level of about 750-800 cells is reached. Following unilateral transection of the infraorbital nerve at 24-36 hr after birth, these vibrissal Merkel cells continued to develop along a time course that was indistinguishable from normal, at least over the first 2 weeks of postnatal life. In contrast, all or most of the Merkel cells that normally develop within collars or annular clusters in the pad epidermis (around both the vibrissal and intervibrissal or pelage hairs) either disappeared within a few days or failed to develop. Other light and electron microscopic procedures supported the main findings and confirmed that the denervation was successful. Thus, the vibrissal Merkel cells, like those in the glabrous hindpaw, behaved as a distinct class which develops postnatally and is maintained (at least over a 2-week period) without the presence of sensory nerves. Since both the mystacial vibrissae and glabrous hindpaw have specialized cortical representations, a possible relationship between these findings and the organization of the somatosensory cortex during development is discussed.
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