Here we studied the role of signaling through ErbB-family receptors in interactions between unmyelinated axons and non-myelinating Schwann cells in adult nerves. We generated transgenic mice that postnatally express a dominant-negative ErbB receptor in non-myelinating but not in myelinating Schwann cells. These mutant mice present a progressive peripheral neuropathy characterized by extensive Schwann cell proliferation and death, loss of unmyelinated axons and marked heat and cold pain insensitivity. At later stages, C-fiber sensory neurons die by apoptosis, a process that may result from reduced GDNF (glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor) expression in the sciatic nerve. Neuregulin 1 (NRG1)-ErbB signaling mediates, therefore, reciprocal interactions between non-myelinating Schwann cells and unmyelinated sensory neuron axons that are critical for Schwann cell and C-fiber sensory neuron survival. This study provides new insights into ErbB signaling in adult Schwann cells, the contribution of non-myelinating Schwann cells in maintaining trophic support of sensory neurons, and the possible role of disrupted ErbB signaling in peripheral sensory neuropathies.
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