Histological and Ultrastructural Analysis of White Matter Damage after Naturally-occurring Spinal Cord Injury


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Abstract

Detailed analysis of the structural changes that follow human clinical spinal cord injury is limited by difficulties in achieving adequate tissue fixation. This study bypasses this obstacle by examining the spinal cord from paraplegic domestic animals, enabling us to document the ultrastructural changes at different times following injury. In all but one case, injury resulted from a combination of contusion and compression. There was infarction and hemorrhage, followed by gray matter destruction and the rapid development of a variety of white matter changes including axon swelling and myelin degeneration. Axons greater than 5 μm in diameter were more susceptible to degenerative changes, whereas smaller axons, particularly those in the subpial region, were relatively well preserved. Demyelinated axons were seen within 2 weeks after injury and, at later time points, both Schwann cell and oligodendrocyte remyelination was common. More subtle white matter abnormalities were identified by examining sagittal sections, including focal accumulation of organelles in the axoplasm and partial and paranodal myelin abnormalities. These observations serve to validate observations from experimental models of spinal contusion but also highlight the complexity of naturally occurring (ie, clinical) spinal injury. They also raise the possibility that focal abnormalities such as paranodal demyelination may contribute to early axonal dysfunction and possibly to progressive tissue damage.

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