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Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2011 Apr 1;36(7):512-20. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181f72b94.

Human disc nucleus properties and vertebral endplate permeability.

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Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of California, San Francisco, CA 94143, USA.



Experimental quantification of relationships between vertebral endplate morphology, permeability, disc cell density, glycosaminoglycan (GAG) content, and degeneration in samples harvested from human cadaveric spines.


To test the hypothesis that variation in endplate permeability and porosity contributes to changes in intervertebral disc cell density and overall degeneration.


Cells within the intervertebral disc are dependent on diffusive exchange with capillaries in the adjacent vertebral bone. Previous findings suggest that blocked routes of transport negatively affect disc quality, yet there are no quantitative relationships between human vertebral endplate permeability, porosity, cell density, and disc degeneration. Such relationships would be valuable for clarifying degeneration risk factors and patient features that may impede efforts at disc tissue engineering.


Fifty-one motion segments were harvested from 13 frozen cadaveric human lumbar spines (32-85 years) and classified for degeneration using the magnetic resonance imaging-based Pfirrmann scale. A cylindrical core was harvested from the center of each motion segment that included vertebral bony and cartilage endplates along with adjacent nucleus tissue. The endplate mobility, a type of permeability, was measured directly using a custom-made permeameter before and after the cartilage endplate was removed. Cell density within the nucleus tissue was estimated using the picogreen method, while the nuclear GAG content was quantified using the dimethylmethylene blue technique. Specimens were imaged at 8 μm resolution using microCT; bony porosity was calculated. Analysis of variance, linear regression, and multiple comparison tests were used to analyze the data. RESULTS.: Nucleus cell density increased as the disc height decreased (R² = 0.13; P = 0.01) but was not related to subchondral bone porosity (P > 0.5), total mobility (P > 0.4), or age (P > 0.2). When controlling for disc height, however, a significant, negative effect of age on cell density was observed (P = 0.03). In addition to this, GAG content decreased with age nonlinearly (R² = 0.83, P < 0.0001) and a cell function measurement, GAGs/cell, decreased with degeneration (R² = 0.24; P < 0.0001). Total mobility (R² = 0.14; P < 0.01) and porosity (R² = 0.1, P < 0.01) had a positive correlation with age.


Although cell density increased with degeneration, cell function indicated that GAGs/cell decreased. Because permeability and porosity increase with age and degeneration, this implies that cell dysfunction, rather than physical barriers to transport, accelerates disc disease.

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