Journal Article
Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
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Identification of communicating branches among the dorsal, perineal and cavernous nerves of the penis.

PURPOSE: The mechanism of human erection requires the coordination of an intact neuronal system that includes the cavernous, perineal, and dorsal nerves of the penis. We defined the communication of these 3 nerves that travel under the pubic arch using specific neuronal immunohistochemical staining and 3-dimensional reconstruction imaging technique.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: A total of 18 normal human fetal penile specimens at 17.5 to 32 weeks of gestation were studied by immunohistochemical techniques. Serial sections were stained with antibodies raised against the neuronal markers S-100, and neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS), vesicular acetylcholine transporter (VAChT), calcitonin gene-related peptide and substance P.

RESULTS: The continuation of the dorsal neurovascular bundle of the prostate was documented under the pubic arch. Two distinct nerve bundles were identified superior to the urethra and medial to the origin of the crural bodies. Nerve bundles were observed to join the corporeal bodies at the penile hilum. Proximal to the penile hilum the dorsal nerves stained only for S-100 and VAChT. From the junction of the crural bodies at the hilum to the glans penis dorsal nerve fibers stained positive for S-100, VAChT and nNOS. Calcitonin gene-related peptide and substance P demonstrated positive staining at the distal nerves, particularly at the glans. In contrast, the whole course of the cavernous nerve stained for S-100 and nNOS. Under the pubic arch at the penile hilum the cavernous nerves were found to convey nNOS positive branches to the dorsal nerve to transform its immunoreactivity to nNOS positive. Proximal nNOS negative perineal nerves were shown to stain positive for nNOS distal on the penis. Interaction between nNOS positive dorsal nerve branches and perineal nerves was at the cavernous-spongiosal junction, where the bulbospongiosus muscle terminates.

CONCLUSIONS: At penile hilum, where the corporeal bodies start to separate, the cavernous nerve sends nNOS positive fibers to join the dorsal nerve of the penis, thereby, changing the functional characteristics of the distal penile dorsal nerve. Similarly the nNOS negative, ventrally located perineal nerve originating from the pudendal nerve becomes nNOS reactive at the cavernous-spongiosal junction. These 2 examples of redundant neuronal wiring in the penis may impact erectile function, especially during reconstructive surgery.

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