Intralamellar relationships within the collagenous architecture of the annulus fibrosus imaged in its fully hydrated state


Dr Neil Broom, Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand. E:


The anisotropic, inhomogeneous, multiply collagenous architecture of the annulus reflects the complex pattern of mainly tensile stresses developed in this region of the disc during normal function. Structural and mechanical responses of fully hydrated in-plane sections taken from within single lamellae of the outer annulus of healthy bovine caudal discs have been investigated using a micromechanical technique in combination with simultaneous high-resolution differential interference contrast optical imaging. Responses both along and across (i.e. transverse to) the primary direction of the mono-array of collagen fibres were studied. Stretching along the alignment direction revealed a biomechanical response consistent with the behaviour of an array whose overall strength is governed primarily by the strength of embedding of the fibres in the vertebral endplates, rather than from interfibre cohesion along their length. The mono-aligned array, even when lacerated, is highly resistant to any further tearing across the alignment direction. Although not visible in the relaxed mono-arrays, transverse stretching revealed a highly complex set of interconnecting structures embodying hierarchical relationships not previously revealed. It is suggested that these structures might play an important role in the containment under pressure of the nuclear contents. The dramatic differences in rupture behaviour observed along vs. across the primary fibre direction are consistent with the known clinical consequences arising from varying degrees of annular wall damage, and might also explain various types of disc herniation. The lamellar architecture of the healthy disc revealed by this investigation provides an important reference framework for exploring structural changes associated with disc trauma and degeneration.