The bronchial epithelium and underlying reticular basement membrane (RBM) have a close spatial and functional inter-relationship and are considered an epithelial–mesenchymal trophic unit (EMTU). An understanding of RBM development is critical to understanding the extent and time of appearance of its abnormal thickening that is characteristic of asthma.
RBM thickness and epithelial height were determined in histological sections of cartilaginous bronchi obtained postmortem from 47 preterm babies and infants (median age 40 weeks gestation (22 weeks gestation–8 months)), 40 children (2 years (1 month–17 years)) and 23 adults (44 (17–90) years) who had died from non-respiratory causes, and had no history of asthma.
The RBM was visible by light microscopy at 30 weeks gestation. RBM thickness increased in successive age groups in childhood; in infants (r=0.63, p<0.001) and in children between 1 month and 17 years (r=0.82, p<0.001). After 18 years, RBM thickness decreased with increasing age (r=−0.42, p<0.05). Epithelial height showed a similar relationship with age, a positive relationship from preterm to 17 years (r = 0.50, p<0.001) and a negative relationship in adulthood (r=−0.84, p<0.0001). There was a direct relationship between epithelial height and RBM thickness (r=0.6, p<0.001).
The RBM in these subjects was microscopically identifiable by 30 weeks gestation. It thickened during childhood and adolescence. In adults, there was either no relationship with age, or a slow reduction in thickness in older age. Developmental changes of RBM thickness were accompanied by similar changes in epithelial height, supporting the close relationship between RBM and epithelium within the EMTU.