1997 Volvo Award winner in basic science studies. Immunohistologic markers for age-related changes of human lumbar intervertebral discs

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1997 Dec 15;22(24):2781-95. doi: 10.1097/00007632-199712150-00001.


Study design: The authors performed a correlative macroscopic, histologic, and immunohistochemical investigation on human lumbar intervertebral discs using complete motion segment slices, including all age groups and stages of degeneration.

Objectives: To identify markers for age-related changes of human lumbar intervertebral discs. In particular, to investigate changes in the distribution pattern of collagen Types I, II, III, IV, V, VI, IX, and X. In addition, to study posttranslational protein modification by the immunolocalization of N-(carboxylmethyl)lysine (CML), which is regarded as a biomarker for oxidative stress.

Summary of background data: Data on a correlation of age-related changes in disc morphology and disc matrix composition is sparse. So far, no comprehensive analysis considered a correlation of macroscopic, histologic, and biochemical age-related alterations using complete sections of intervertebral discs (i.e., including nucleus pulposus, anulus fibrosus, endplates, and vertebral bodies). In addition, there is need for specific markers for these disc changes to allow for a better correlation with disc function.

Methods: After photodocumentation of the macroscopic appearance, 229 sagittal lumbar motion segments obtained from 47 individuals (fetal to 86 years) during routine autopsy were processed for histologic and immunohistochemical analysis. All slices were investigated for histologic alterations of disc degeneration. A randomly selected subset of these specimens (n = 45) was used for a correlative analysis of interstitial collagens and molecular modifications of matrix proteins.

Results: The presence of CML-modification of extracellular matrix proteins, mainly collagen, was observed first in the nucleus pulposus of a 13-year-old individual and increased significantly with age. In elderly people, both the nucleus pulposus and the anulus fibrosus showed extensive CML deposition. This CML deposition was accentuated in areas of macroscopic and histologic disc degeneration. After the occurrence of CML in the nucleus pulposus, we found a change in the collagen type pattern. An initial increase in nuclear collagen Types II, III, and VI staining was followed by a loss of collagen Type II, the occurrence of collagen Type I, and the persistence of high collagen Type III and VI levels, which were finally decreased again. The nuclear chondrocytes revealed significant changes in their immediate pericellular matrix, indicating phenotypic changes. Thus, exclusively in the nucleus pulposus of adolescents and young adults a significant proportion of cells positively stained for the basement membrane collagen Type IV. Collagen Type X was expressed by nuclear chondrocytes at a higher age and was associated with advanced degenerative disc alterations.

Conclusions: The authors present the first study in which age-related changes are correlated on a macroscopic, histologic, and molecular level using complete sections of lumbar motion segments. They reconfirm the notion that disc degeneration starts as early as in the second decade of life. Therefore, only early prevention of disc damage may inhibit disc degeneration and its sequelae. Phenotypic alterations of nuclear chondrocytes as monitored by collagen Type IV in young adults with minor lesions and collagen Type X in advanced lesions indicate distinct cellular reactions, possibly as a reaction to enhanced oxidative stress. The degree of this oxidative stress is reflected by the CML-staining pattern which, in turn, indicates that the disc undergoes an accumulative stress, possibly leading to altered properties of the collagen fibrils and, thereby, tissue destruction. The deposition of CML proved to be the best marker for ongoing age-related changes in the intervertebral disc.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging
  • Biomarkers*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Fetus
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intervertebral Disc / chemistry*
  • Intervertebral Disc / pathology
  • Intervertebral Disc / physiopathology
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / chemistry*
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / pathology
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / physiopathology
  • Lysine / analogs & derivatives
  • Lysine / analysis
  • Middle Aged


  • Biomarkers
  • N(6)-carboxymethyllysine
  • Lysine