a1 Viale San Michele del Carso, Milano, Italy
In sensory ganglia each nerve cell body is usually enveloped by a satellite glial cell (SGC) sheath, sharply separated from sheaths encircling adjacent neurons by connective tissue. However, following axon injury SGCs may form bridges connecting previously separate perineuronal sheaths. Each sheath consists of one or several layers of cells that overlap in a more or less complex fashion; sometimes SGCs form a perineuronal myelin sheath. SGCs are flattened mononucleate cells containing the usual cell organelles. Several ion channels, receptors and adhesion molecules have been identified in these cells. SGCs of the same sheath are usually linked by adherent and gap junctions, and are functionally coupled. Following axon injury, both the number of gap junctions and the coupling of SGCs increase markedly. The apposed plasma membranes of adjacent cells are separated by 15–20 nm gaps, which form a potential pathway, usually long and tortuous, between connective tissue and neuronal surface. The boundary between neuron and SGC sheath is usually complicated, mainly by many projections arising from the neuron. The outer surface of the SGC sheath is covered by a basal lamina. The number of SGCs enveloping a nerve cell body is proportional to the cell body volume; the volume of the SGC sheath is proportional to the volume and surface area of the nerve cell body. In old animals, both the number of SGCs and the mean volume of the SGC sheaths are significantly lower than in young adults. Furthermore, extensive portions of the neuronal surface are not covered by SGCs, exposing neurons of aged animals to damage by harmful substances.
* In memory of the late Professor Enrico Reale (1927–2006), untiring researcher and dear friend, whose expertise made possible the freeze-fracture studies cited in the present review.