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Schwann cell

named for Theodor Schwann (1810 to 1882), German physiologist
Synonym: Gliocytus periphericus, neurolemmocyte
German: Schwann-Zelle

1 Definition

In the peripheral nervous system, Schwann cells form the myelin sheaths that surround myelinated nerve fibers. Non-myelinated nerve fibers are covered with the Schwann cells' cytoplasm.

2 Histology

Schwann cells belong to the group of glial cells that descend from the ectoderm. Just like the oligodendrocytes of the central nervous system, their function is to isolate axons and provide them with nutrients. Their length can reach up to 100 µm. One axon is covered with parts of multiple Schwann cells that leave small gaps between them. Those gaps, called nodes of Ranvier, are the place where saltatory conduction of action potentials happens which drastically improves conduction velocity. The myelin sheaths sometimes have gaps that run diagonally along the otherwise very tight windings, called Schmidt-Lanterman incisures (myelin incisures).

3 Pathology

Uncontrolled proliferation of Schwann cells can lead to a condition called vestibular schwannoma, a benign tumor that affects hearing and balance.

4 Research

Schwann cells can be distinguished from fibroblasts by the expression of the surface molecule LNGFR (Low Affinity Nerve Growth Factor Receptor, also known as p75). Magnetic cell separation can be used to obtain a suspension of Schwann cells from an enzymatically treated nerve fragment. If done properly, this suspension will be without significant pollution from cell aggregates and fibroblasts, only leaving the desired Schwann cells. Clinical studies and in vitro experiments indicate that transplantation of silicone tubes lined with Schwann cells could contribute to functionally reconnecting severed nerves.

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