Object: Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death seen in a variety of developmental and disease states, including traumatic injuries. The main objective of this study was to determine whether apoptosis is observed after human spinal cord injury (SCI). The spatial and temporal expression of apoptotic cells as well as the nature of the cells involved in programmed cell death were also investigated.

Methods: The authors examined the spinal cords of 15 patients who died between 3 hours and 2 months after a traumatic SCI. Apoptotic cells were found at the edges of the lesion epicenter and in the adjacent white matter, particularly in the ascending tracts, by using histological (cresyl violet, hematoxylin and eosin) and nuclear staining (Hoechst 33342). The presence of apoptotic cells was supported by staining with the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated deoxyuridinetriphosphate nick-end labeling technique and confirmed by immunostaining for the processed form of caspase-3 (CPP-32), a member of the interleukin-1beta-converting enzyme/Caenorhabditis elegans D 3 (ICE/CED-3) family of proteases that plays an essential role in programmed cell death. Apoptosis in this series of human SCIs was a prominent pathological finding in 14 of the 15 spinal cords examined when compared with five uninjured control spinal cords. To determine the type of cells undergoing apoptosis, the authors immunostained specimens with a variety of antibodies, including glial fibrillary acidic protein, 2′,3′-cyclic nucleotide 3′-phosphohydrolase (CNPase), and CD45/68. Oligodendrocytes stained with CNPase and a number of apoptotic nuclei colocalized with positive staining for this antibody.

Conclusions: These results support the hypothesis that apoptosis occurs in human SCIs and is accompanied by the activation of caspase-3 of the cysteine protease family. This mechanism of cell death contributes to the secondary injury processes seen after human SCI and may have important clinical implications for the further development of protease inhibitors to prevent programmed cell death.


Emery E, Aldana P, Bunge MB, Puckett W, Srinivasan A, Keane RW, Bethea J, Levi AD. Apoptosis after traumatic human spinal cord injury. J Neurosurg. 1998 Dec;89(6):911-20. doi: 10.3171/jns.1998.89.6.0911. PMID: 9833815.