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PLoS By Category | Recent PLoS Articles
Biophysics - Physiology - Women's Health

Human Evolution and Osteoporosis-Related Spinal Fractures
Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Author: Meghan M. Cotter et al.

by Meghan M. Cotter, David A. Loomis, Scott W. Simpson, Bruce Latimer, Christopher J. Hernandez

The field of evolutionary medicine examines the possibility that some diseases are the result of trade-offs made in human evolution. Spinal fractures are the most common osteoporosis-related fracture in humans, but are not observed in apes, even in cases of severe osteopenia. In humans, the development of osteoporosis is influenced by peak bone mass and strength in early adulthood as well as age-related bone loss. Here, we examine the structural differences in the vertebral bodies (the portion of the vertebra most commonly involved in osteoporosis-related fractures) between humans and apes before age-related bone loss occurs. Vertebrae from young adult humans and chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons (T8 vertebrae, n?=?8–14 per species, male and female, humans: 20–40 years of age) were examined to determine bone strength (using finite element models), bone morphology (external shape), and trabecular microarchitecture (micro-computed tomography). The vertebrae of young adult humans are not as strong as those from apes after accounting for body mass (p<0.01). Human vertebrae are larger in size (volume, cross-sectional area, height) than in apes with a similar body mass. Young adult human vertebrae have significantly lower trabecular bone volume fraction (0.26±0.04 in humans and 0.37±0.07 in apes, mean ± SD, p<0.01) and thinner vertebral shells than apes (after accounting for body mass, p<0.01). Since human vertebrae are more porous and weaker than those in apes in young adulthood (after accounting for bone mass), even modest amounts of age-related bone loss may lead to vertebral fracture in humans, while in apes, larger amounts of bone loss would be required before a vertebral fracture becomes likely. We present arguments that differences in vertebral bone size and shape associated with reduced bone strength in humans is linked to evolutionary adaptations associated with bipedalism.
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