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ABSTRACT: Recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (RDEB) is a rare genetic condition in which mutations in the type VII collagen gene (COL7A1) lead to decreased expression of this anchoring protein of the skin, causing the loss of stability at the dermo-epidermal junction. Most patients with RDEB experience neuropathic pain and itch due to the development of a small fibre neuropathy, characterised by decreased intraepidermal innervation and thermal hypoaesthesia. To understand the physiopathology of this neuropathy, we used a mouse model of RDEB (Col7a1flNeo/flNeo) and performed a detailed characterisation of the somatosensory system. Col7a1flNeo/flNeo mice showed a decrease in heat sensitivity, an increase in spontaneous scratching, and a significant decrease in intraepidermal nerve fibre density in the hindpaw; these changes were distal because there was no significant loss of unmyelinated or myelinated fibres in the nerve trunk. Of interest, we observed a decrease in axon diameter in both myelinated and unmyelinated fibres. This axonal damage was not associated with inflammation of the dorsal root ganglion or central projection targets at the time of assessment. These results suggest that in RDEB, there is a distal degeneration of axons produced by exclusive damage of small fibres in the epidermis, and in contrast with traumatic and acute neuropathies, it does not induce sustained neuroinflammation. Thus, this animal model emphasizes the importance of a healthy cutaneous environment for maintenance of epidermal innervation and faithfully replicates the pathology in humans, offering the opportunity to use this model in the development of treatments for pain for patients with RDEB.

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