Intestinal mucosal mast cells in normal and nematode-infected rat intestines are in intimate contact with peptidergic nerves.
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Inflammatory or allergic conditions, as well as situations where healing and repair processes occur, are characterized by the presence of increased numbers of mast cells. Previous work on the effect of neuropeptides on mast cell mediator release showed that only substance P caused such release from intestinal mucosal mast cells [Shanahan, F., Denburg, J. A., Fox, J., Bienenstock, J. & Befus, A. D. (1985) J. Immunol. 135, 1331-1337]. Accordingly, we investigated the microanatomical relationship between mast cells and enteric nerves in normal rat intestine and parasite-infected rat intestine, in which mucosal mast cell hyperplasia occurs. Combined immunohistochemistry for neuron-specific enolase and staining with alcian blue at pH 0.5 was employed on paraffin-embedded sections of normal and Nippostrongylus brasiliensis-infected rat jejunum. Sixty-seven percent of intestinal mucosal mast cells were touching subepithelial nerves, and an additional 20% were within 2 micron of nerves. Assessment of the proportion of the lamina propria occupied by mast cells (12.5%), the average mast cell area (121 +/- 28 microns 2), and the density of enteric nerves (one per 788 +/- 151 microns 2) suggested that the association was 5 times greater than would be expected by chance alone (P less than 0.0001). In consecutive sections, the nerves in contact with mast cells were also shown to contain substance P and/or calcitonin-gene-related peptide. Electron microscopy confirmed this association: 8% of the mast cells in infected rats exhibited membrane-membrane contact with unmyelinated axons containing 70- to 170-nm dense-core vesicles, and an additional 31% were situated less than 250 nm from nerves. Other mast cells appeared to embrace nerve bundles through the projection of lamellopodia. These data provide systematic quantitative evidence that a structural foundation for communication between the immune and nervous systems exists in the rat gastrointestinal tract.
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