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Structural and Ultrastructural Analysis of the Cervical Discs of Young and Elderly Humans.
Fontes RB, Baptista JS, Rabbani SR, Traynelis VC, Liberti EA
.....Our objective was to describe the ECM and collagen profile of cervical IVDs (intervertebral disks) in young (G1 - <35 years) and elderly (G2 - >65 years) presumably-asymptomatic individuals. Thirty cervical discs per group were obtained during autopsies of presumably-asymptomatic individuals. IVDs were analyzed with MRI, a morphological grading scale, light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and immunohistochemistry (IHC) for collagen types I, II, III, IV, V, VI, IX and X. Macroscopic degenerative features such as loss of annulus-nucleus distinction and fissures were found in both groups and significantly more severe in G2 as expected. MRI could not detect all morphological changes when compared even with simple morphological inspection. The loose fibrocartilaginous G1 matrix was replaced by a denser ECM in G2 with predominantly cartilaginous characteristics, chondrocyte clusters and absent elastic fibers. SEM demonstrated persistence of an identifiable nucleus and Sharpey-type insertion of cervical annulus fibers even in highly-degenerated G2 specimens. All collagen types were detected in every disc sector except for collagen X, with the largest area stained by collagens II and IV. Collagen detection was significantly decreased in G2: although significant intradiscal differences were rare, changes may occur faster or earlier in the posterior annulus. These results demonstrate an extensive modification of the ECM with maintenance of basic ultrastructural features despite severe macroscopic degeneration. Collagen analysis supports there is not a "pathologic" collagen type and changes are generally similar throughout the disc. Understanding the collagen and ultrastructural substrate of degenerative changes in the human disc is an essential step in planning restorative therapies.