The magnetic resonance image, gross morphology, and biochemical composition of the intervertebral disc nucleus pulposus (NP), anulus fibrosus (AF) and cartilaginous endplates (CEP) from two groups of three human lumbar spines were compared. Group I consisted of all healthy discs from young donors (Grade I) and group II was comprised of discs that had undergone degeneration and age-related changes (average Grade 4). The gross morphological changes in the individual disc tissues associated with ageing/degeneration were consistent with specific changes in the characteristics of the magnetic resonance image. In particular, the mid-nuclear band of decreased magnetic resonance signal intensity seen in Grade 4 discs was associated with the appearance of clefts and fissures as well as a region of mucinous infiltration. The results of the biochemical analysis suggest that the changes in signal intensity are not due merely to changes in water content, but are also associated with changes in proteoglycan content. The changes associated with ageing/degeneration in the magnetic resonance image of the disc were related to a decrease in the proteoglycan content of the AF and NP. The water content of the NP also decreased. There was no clear association between the biochemical composition of the CEP and the magnetic resonance image. These results demonstrate that magnetic resonance imaging is an effective technique for evaluating subtle morphological changes in the intervertebral disc tissues and may be a sensitive indicator of the proteoglycan content of the AF and NP.
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