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Keywords:

  • Merkel cell;
  • Merkel nerve ending;
  • Tastscheibe;
  • touch dome;
  • mechanoreceptor;
  • neuroendocrine cell

Abstract

Merkel nerve endings are mechanoreceptors in the mammalian skin. They consist of large, pale cells with lobulated nuclei forming synapse-like contacts with enlarged terminal endings of myelinated nerve fibers. They were first described by F.S. Merkel in 1875. They are found in the skin and in those parts of the mucosa derived from the ectoderm. In mammals (apart from man), the largest accumulation of Merkel nerve endings is found in whiskers. In all vertebrates, Merkel nerve endings are located in the basal layer of the epidermis, apart from birds, where they are located in the dermis. Cytoskeletal filaments consisting of cytokeratins and osmiophilic granules containing a variety of neuropeptides are found in Merkel cells. In anseriform birds, groups of cells resembling Merkel cells, with discoid nerve terminals between cells, form Grandry corpuscles. There has been controversy over the origin of Merkel cells. Results from chick/quail chimeras show that, in birds, Merkel cells are a subpopulation of cells derived from the neural crest, which thus excludes their development from the epidermis. Most recently, also in mammals, conclusive evidence for a neural crest origin of Merkel cells has been obtained. Merkel cells and nerve terminals form mechanoreceptors. Calcium ions enter Merkel cells in response to mechanical stimuli, a process which triggers the release of calcium from intracellular stores resulting in exocytosis of neurotransmitter or neuromodulator. Recent results suggest that there may be glutamatergic transmission between Merkel cell and nerve terminal, which appears to be essential for the characteristic slowly adapting response of these receptors during maintained mechanical stimuli. Thus, we are convinced that Merkel cells with associated nerve terminals function as mechanoreceptor cells. Cells in the skin with a similar appearance as Merkel cells, but without contact to nerve terminals, are probably part of a diffuse neuroendocrine system and do not function as mechanoreceptors. Probably these cells, rather than those acting as mechanoreceptors, are the origin of a highly malignant skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. Anat Rec Part A 271A:225–239, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.