Southern Illinois University


Nerve & Muscle Tissue

Cornea, epithelium and connective tissue

Dense fibrous connective tissue covered by nonkeratinized stratified squamous epithelium comprises the cornea.

This is perhaps the simplest presentation of connective tissue and epithelium in the body, lacking blood vessels and complex epithelial derivatives (in contrast with, e.g., skin).

In spite of its apparent simplicity, corneal tissues are also highly specialized for transparency and precise curvature.

Corneal connective tissue, also called corneal stroma or substantia propria, consists of numerous layers of collagen fibers embedded in a glycosaminoglycan ground substance.  Collagen fibers are arranged into many layers parallel to the corneal surface.  The fiber orientation alternates from layer to layer.  Scattered within the substantia propria are the flattened fibroblasts which produce the collagen and ground substance.

Corneal epithelium consists of several (5 to 6) layers of cells.  These cells are cuboidal through most of the thickness of the epithelium but become squamous (thin and flat) at the surface.

Note that epithelial tissue is classified according to the number of cell layers and the shape of surface cells, making this a stratified squamous epithelium.

Deep to the substantia propria, the single layer of low cuboidal cells adjacent to the aqueous humor is the so-called corneal endothelium.  (This layer is unlabelled in the image.)

Specialization for transparency.  Apart from the obvious absence of blood vessels, the tissue composition of the cornea appears almost identical to that of the sclera (the white of the eye).  But unlike the sclera, the cornea is marvellously transparent.  

Transparency of the cornea is based primarily on the regularity of its tissue components, which minimizes the scattering of light.  

Although most cells and fibers are colorless, the surfaces of these elements can scatter light when irregularly arranged.  Similarly, light scattered from colorless and transparent ice crystals produce the familiar whiteness of winter snow.  Such scattering (together with absorption of light by pigments such as melanin and hemoglobin) prevents light from passing freely through most tissues.

The cornea also displays two exceptionally thick basement membranes -- Bowman's membrane between the corneal epithelium and the substantia propria, and Descemet's membrane between the substantia propria and the corneal endothelium.

Comments and questions:

SIUC / School of Medicine / Anatomy / David King
Last updated:  8 June 2022 / dgk