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Ultrastructural sequence of myelin breakdown during Wallerian degeneration in the rat optic nerve

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Adult albino rats were subjected to unilateral surgical removal of the eyeball. After survival times of 7–140 days, the numerical response of the neuroglial cells, and the progressive disintegration of the myelin sheaths in the optic nerves, were studied qualitatively and quantitatively in electron-microscopic montages. The distribution density of microglia and astroglia in degenerating optic nerve increased to peaks after 35 and 56 days respectively, whereas, the oligodendroglia gradually decreased. During the early stage of degeneration, microglial cells appeared and invaded the sheath at the intraperiod line, peeling off the outer lamellae, which were then engulfed by phagocytosis. Within the microglia, myelin sheath fragments were surrounded by a membrane curled to form a myelin ring. In the intermediate stage of degeneration, the paired electrondense lines of the ring, made up of myelin basic protein, decomposed and formed a homogenous or heterogenous osmiophilic layered structure, the myelin body, which, in the final stages, disintegrated and transformed into globoid lipid droplets and needle shaped cholesterol crystals.

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Correspondence to Dr. Keh-Min Liu.

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Liu, K., Shen, C. Ultrastructural sequence of myelin breakdown during Wallerian degeneration in the rat optic nerve. Cell Tissue Res. 242, 245–256 (1985).

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Key words

  • Myelin
  • Microglia
  • Wallerian degeneration
  • Optic nerve, rat
  • Electron microscopy