The diversity of cutaneous sensory afferents has been studied by many investigators using behavioral, physiologic, molecular, and genetic approaches. Largely missing, thus far, is an analysis of the complete morphologies of individual afferent arbors. Here we present a survey of cutaneous sensory arbor morphologies in hairy skin of the mouse using genetically-directed sparse labeling with a sensory neuron-specific alkaline phosphatase reporter. Quantitative analyses of 719 arbors, among which 77 were fully reconstructed, reveal 10 morphologically distinct types. Among the two types with the largest arbors, one contacts ∼200 hair follicles with circumferential endings and a second is characterized by a densely ramifying arbor with one to several thousand branches and a total axon length between one-half and one meter. These observations constrain models of receptive field size and structure among cutaneous sensory neurons, and they raise intriguing questions regarding the cellular and developmental mechanisms responsible for this morphological diversity.
Sensory neurons carry information from sensory cells in the eyes, ears and other sensory organs to the brain and spinal cord so that they can coordinate the body's response to its environment and various stimuli. The sensory organs responsible for four of the traditional senses—vision, hearing, smell and taste—are relatively small and self-contained: however, the sensory organ responsible for touch is as big as the body itself. Moreover, a variety of many different types of sensory cells in the skin allow the body to respond to temperature, pain, itches and a range of other external stimuli.
Despite more than a century of research, relatively little is known about the morphology of the complex networks (arbors) of sensory neurons that send signals towards the central nervous system. This is mainly due to difficulties involved in imaging intact skin, the way that different arbors overlap and intermingle, and the relatively large distances that separate the bodies of neuronal cells and the farthest reaches of their arbors.
Wu et al. employed an imaging method that exploits the Cre-Lox system that is already widely used in genetics. In this approach a Cre enzyme is used to remove a region of DNA that is flanked by two genetically engineered Lox sequences. Wu et al. used a gene that codes for an enzyme marker (alkaline phosphatase) that previous investigators had into the DNA of mice. The gene was inserted in such a way that it was only expressed in sensory neurons that innervate the skin when Cre-Lox recombination had removed an adjacent segment of DNA. Moreover, Wu et al. used this reporter gene in combination with a modified Cre enzyme that only enters the nuclei of cells in the presence of a drug (Tamoxifen), so the probability that the marker gene is expressed is determined by the concentration of Tamoxifen. By administering a low level of Tamoxifen to pregnant mice, it was possible to label a very small number of sensory neurons in each embryo. Individual neurons that express the alkaline phosphatase marker were visualized with a histochemical reaction that rendered them dark purple. The remainder of the tissue remained unstained.
Based on quantitative analyses of the morphologies of more than 700 arbors, Wu et al. identified 10 distinct types of neurons. Of the two types of neurons with the largest arbors, one makes contact with ∼200 hair follicles, with the nerve endings completely encircling the follicles; the other type of arbor contains several thousand branches, with a total length for all of the branches summing to as much as one meter in length. The next challenge is to study the morphologies of neurons in tissues other than the skin, and also the neurons involved in other sensory systems, and to explore the cellular and developmental mechanisms responsible for the morphological diversity found in these initial experiments.