The role of osteocytes in bone regulation: mineral homeostasis versus mechanoreception

J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2002 Mar;2(3):242-4.


Early work on the role of osteocytes in bone regulation suggested that the primary function of these cells was osteolysis. This lytic function was not precisely defined but included mineral homeostasis and at least the initiation of matrix remodeling, if not a primary role in remodeling. This paper is an attempt to promote the concept of osteocytic osteolysis as a method of systemic mineral homeostasis and to separate it from bone remodeling. Although recent investigations have pointed to mechanotransduction as a primary function of osteocytes, resulting in a general abandonment of the osteocytic osteolysis concept, the corpus of evidence suggests that osteocytes likely have a multipurpose role in the biology of bone. The osteocyte network represents an enormous surface area over which the cells interface with the surrounding matrix, useful for both strain detection and matrix mineral access. Osteocytes have been found to possess receptors for PTH, a known regulator of mineral ion homeostasis. Cultured osteocytes placed on dentin slices demonstrated no capacity to pit the dentin, but they were not treated with a regulating factor such as PTH, nor does mineral homeostasis require substantial bone volume removal. Scaling relationships suggest that osteocyte density is inversely proportional to body mass, R(2) = 0.86, and thus directly proportional to metabolic rate. Thus, species with higher metabolic rates (and therefore a greater demand for immediate access to minerals) have more osteocytes per bone volume. Finally, osteocytes express molecules typically associated with nerve cells and which are involved with glutamate neurotransmission. By this system, almost instantaneous messages may be transmitted throughout the network, an important feature in cells whose homeostatic function would be utilized on a scale of seconds, rather than hours or days. Experimental procedures for determining the role of the osteocyte in mineral homeostasis would require calcium mobilization from the bone matrix on a relatively immediate time scale. The experimental procedure would then be coupled with a high resolution histomorphometric analysis of lacunar radiographic area and mineral density. Added to this would be an in vitro study of mineral activation capacity via cultured osteocytes treated with PTH. Osteocytic osteolysis would be confirmed by an increase in the demineralized volume of osteocytic lacunae and the identification of a chemical mechanism by which osteocytes can readily access the mineral portion of their immediate bone matrix. It should also be true that a reverse capacity exists by which osteocytes can remineralize their immediate matrix utilizing alkaline phosphatase for example, a chemical which they, like osteoblasts, are known to generate. It is thus proposed that osteocytes are both mechanoreceptors and systemic mineral homeostasis regulators.