The chemical morphology of age-related changes in human intervertebral disc glycosaminoglycans from cervical, thoracic and lumbar nucleus pulposus and annulus fibrosus

J E Scott, T R Bosworth, A M Cribb, J R Taylor
Journal of Anatomy 1994, 184: 73-82
Hyaluronan (HA), chondroitin and keratan sulphates (CS, KS), collagen and dry weights were measured in the annulus fibrosus and nucleus pulposus of human cervical, thoracic and lumbar intervertebral discs aged 36-79 y. Alcian blue-critical electrolyte concentration (CEC) staining of sections extended the results. The collagen, total polyanion, HA, CS and KS contents of the nucleus pulposus and annulus fibrosus were plotted for all 3 regions against age. Regional differences and age-related trends were found. For regional differences, the collagen content of the nucleus pulposus was highest in cervical discs and lowest in lumbar discs. In contrast, the total polyanion content of the nucleus pulposus was highest in lumbar discs and lowest in cervical discs. These differences were seen in fetal and adult discs. With respect to age-related trends, the collagen content of the annulus fibrosus was higher in adults and children than in neonates and infants. The collagen content of the nucleus pulposus increased with age in thoracic and lumbar discs, but it was consistently high in cervical discs. There was generally a downward trend of total polyanion and CS with increase in age. This was quite consistent for the annulus fibrosus in all regions and there were dramatic decreases in the lumbar nucleus pulposus in all adults compared with infants and children. These trends were least evident in the cervical nucleus pulposus where infant values were low. CS changes correlated with water content. HA and KS increased in all discs with increasing maturity. Oversulphated KS, absent from fetal discs, reached mature levels by 10 y. Many of the changes occurred before maturity. Glycosaminoglycan (GAG) levels correlated with increasing compressive loads. Higher collagen levels in the cervical nucleus pulposus correlated with greater ranges of torsional and shearing strains in cervical discs. High GAG levels in cervical annulus fibrosus probably facilitate lamellar movements during torsional and flexional movements by lubrication and increase of tissue compressibility. Increased KS/CS ratios before maturity correlated with decreased disc blood supply. Ambient O2 tensions may determine KS/CS balance, the former consuming little O2 during biosynthesis.

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