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Anat Rec. 1982 Dec;204(4):307-14.

Ultrastructure of the human intervertebral disc: II. Cells of the nucleus pulposus.


The cells of the intervertebral disc exist in a unique environment; not only are discs subject to large mechanical loads, they are the largest avascular structures in the body. To describe the ultrastructure and age changes in cells from human nucleus pulposus, we studied these cells in individuals ranging in age from the 26th week of fetal life to 91 years. Viable chondrocyte-like cells existed in specimens from all ages. The presence of Golgi cisternae and well-developed endoplasmic reticulum in these cells suggests that they are capable of producing and maintaining the extracellular matrix. Necrotic cells were also present in all samples, and many cells which appeared viable when examined by light microscopy proved to be necrotic when examined by electron microscopy. The percentage of necrotic cells increased with age from 2% or less in fetal specimens to over 50% in adults. In addition, with age, a distinct pericellular matrix or "nest," consisting of collagen fibrils, fine filaments, dense particles, and banded structures, formed around most cells with no apparent preference for viable or necrotic cells. Nest formation and increasing density of the cell nests may reflect accumulation of cell products.

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