Journal of virology

Reversible nerve damage and corneal pathology in murine herpes simplex stromal keratitis.

PMID 24789786


Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) shedding from sensory neurons can trigger recurrent bouts of herpes stromal keratitis (HSK), an inflammatory response that leads to progressive corneal scarring and blindness. A mouse model of HSK is often used to delineate immunopathogenic mechanisms and bears many of the characteristics of human disease, but it tends to be more chronic and severe than human HSK. Loss of blink reflex (BR) in human HSK is common and due to a dramatic retraction of corneal sensory nerve termini in the epithelium and the nerve plexus at the epithelial/stromal interface. However, the relationship between loss of BR due to nerve damage and corneal pathology associated with HSK remains largely unexplored. Here, we show a similar retraction of corneal nerves in mice with HSK. Indeed, we show that much of the HSK-associated corneal inflammation in mice is actually attributable to damage to the corneal nerves and accompanying loss of BR and can be prevented or ameliorated by tarsorrhaphy (suturing eyelids closed), a clinical procedure commonly used to prevent corneal exposure and desiccation. In addition, we show that HSK-associated nerve retraction, loss of BR, and severe pathology all are reversible and regulated by CD4(+) T cells. Thus, defining immunopathogenic mechanisms of HSK in the mouse model will necessitate distinguishing mechanisms associated with the immunopathologic response to the virus from those associated with loss of corneal sensation. Based on our findings, investigation of a possible contribution of nerve damage and BR loss to human HSK also appears warranted. Importance: HSK in humans is a potentially blinding disease characterized by recurrent inflammation and progressive scarring triggered by viral release from corneal nerves. Corneal nerve damage is a known component of HSK, but the causes and consequences of HSK-associated nerve damage remain obscure. We show that desiccation of the corneal surface due to nerve damage and associated loss of BR severely exacerbates and prolongs inflammation-induced pathology in mice. Preventing corneal desiccation results in a milder and more transient HSK with variable scarring that mirrors HSK seen in most humans. We further show that nerve damage is reversible and regulated by CD4(+) T cells. Thus, we provide a mouse model that more closely resembles typical human HSK and suggest nerve damage is an important but largely overlooked factor in human disease.