Recent studies have revealed a significant decrease in white matter volume, including loss of myelin, with age but minimal decrease in gray matter volume (Guttmann et al.,  Neurology 50:972-978). Myelin is necessary for the rapid conduction of impulses along axons. Myelinated nerve includes various domains, the node of Ranvier, the paranodal region, the juxtaparanodal region and the internode. The paranodal junction may serve to anchor the myelin sheath to the axon. We analyzed the ultrastructure of the paranodal region in myelinated fibers from the aged rat brain. Severe alterations of myelinated fibers were observed in 31-month-old rats, resulting in the appearance of macrophages, splitting of the myelin sheath, myelin balloon formation and separation from the axon. Many paranodal retractions of myelinated axons occurred in the aged rats. It should be noted that the paranodal junction is functionally important, serving to anchor the myelin to the axon and that there is a diffusion barrier in the paranodal region. We analyzed myelin-related proteins from young and aged rat brains. The 21.5-kDa isoform of myelin basic protein (MBP) almost disappeared in the 31-month-old rats, whereas other myelin proteins were not significantly changed between young and aged rats. These results suggest that this isoform, a highly cationic charged major dense component protein that binds lipid bilayer in the membrane, may participate in the formation of a paranodal diffusion barrier at the myelin/noncompact membrane border.
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