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Keywords:

  • dermatome;
  • dorsal horn;
  • mouse;
  • neurotrophins;
  • NGF

Abstract

It is thought that dermatomes are established during development as a result of competition between afferents of neighbouring segments. Mice that overexpress neurotrophins in the skin provide an interesting model to test this hypothesis, as they possess increased numbers of sensory neurons, and display hyperinnervation of the skin. When dermatomal boundaries were mapped in adult mice, it was found that those in nerve growth factor and brain-derived neurotrophic factor overexpressers were indistinguishable from wild-type animals but that overlap between adjacent segments was greatly reduced in neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) overexpressers. However, dermatomes in heterozygous NT-3 knockout mice displayed no more overlap than wild-types. In order to quantify differences across strains, innervation territories of thoracic dorsal cutaneous nerves were mapped and measured in adult mice. Overlap between adjacent dorsal cutaneous nerves was normal in nerve growth factor overexpressing mice, but much reduced in NT-3 overexpressers. However, this restriction was not reflected in the central projection of the dorsal cutaneous nerve, creating a mismatch between peripheral and central projections. Dorsal cutaneous nerve territories were also mapped in neonatal mice aged postnatal day 7–8. In neonates, nerve territories of NT-3 overexpressers overlapped less than wild-types, but in neonates of both strains the amount of overlap was much greater than in the adult. These results indicate that substantial separation of dermatomes occurs postnatally, and that excess NT-3 enhances this process, resulting in more restricted dermatomes. It may exert its effects either by enhancing competition, or by direct effects on the stability and formation of sensory endings in the skin.