Characterizing precisely the microstructure of axons, their density, size and myelination is of interest for the neuroscientific community, for example to help maximize the outcome of studies on white matter (WM) pathologies of the spinal cord (SC). The existence of a comprehensive and structured database of axonal measurements in healthy and disease models could help the validation of results obtained by different researchers. The purpose of this article is to provide such a database of healthy SC WM, to discuss the potential sources of variability and to suggest avenues for robust and accurate quantification of axon morphometry based on novel acquisition and processing techniques. The article is organized in three sections. The first section reviews morphometric results across species according to range of densities and counts of myelinated axons, axon diameter and myelin thickness, and characteristics of unmyelinated axons in different regions. The second section discusses the sources of variability across studies, such as age, sex, spinal pathways, spinal levels, statistical power and terminology in regard to tracts and protocols. The third section presents new techniques and perspectives that could benefit histology studies. For example, coherent anti-stokes Raman spectroscopy (CARS) imaging can provide sub-micrometric resolution without the need for fixation and staining, while slide scanners and stitching algorithms can provide full cross-sectional area of SC. In combination with these acquisition techniques, automatic segmentation algorithms for delineating axons and myelin sheath can help provide large-scale statistics on axon morphometry.
Keywords: axons; histology; morphology; myelin; spinal cord; white matter.