, Volume 11, Issue 5, pp 721-746

The fine structure of the olfactory mucosa in man

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Summary

This report gives a detailed description of the fine structure of the olfactory mucosa in man. Using a special biopsy instrument and technique, fresh biopsies of olfactory epithelium were taken under local anaesthesia from eight normal volunteers. Transmission electron microscopy reveals that human olfactory epithelium has four major cell types: ciliated olfactory receptors, supporting cells, basal cells and microvillar cells. The ciliated olfactory receptors, as in other mammals, are bipolar neurons; the dendrite tip, modified to form the olfactory vesicle, bears 10–30 cilia that lack dynein arms. The supporting cells, markedly different from the goblet cells of respiratory epithelium, are not specialized for mucus secretion. Instead they are equipped to contribute materials to, and remove materials from, the surface mucus. The basal cells are stem cells that serve to replace epithelial cells and receptors lost during normal turnover or injury. In addition to ciliated olfactory neurons, supporting cells and basal cells, the human olfactory mucosa contains a distinct fourth cell type, the microvillar cell, of unknown function. The apical pole of the cell sends a tuft of short microvilli into the nasal cavity; its basal pole gives rise to a slender cytoplasmic process that resembles an axon. If microvillar cells prove to be sensory cells, the current concept of the human olfactory epithelium will have to be revised to include two morphologically distinct classes of receptors.