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Snapshots of Life: Amyloid Glows in Polarized Light

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Amyloidosis as seen under a microscope

Credit: William Lewis, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta

While this may look like one of those bold canvases from the brush of an Abstract Expressionist, it’s actually a close-up of the biology underlying a rare, but relentless, group of conditions known as amyloidosis. This winner of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2013 BioArt contest traces in exquisite detail the damage that amyloid, which is the abnormal accumulation of specific extracellular proteins, can inflict on the heart.

To capture this image, an NIH-funded researcher used Congo red dye to stain a sample of heart tissue from a patient with amyloidosis. When the sample was placed under a microscope equipped with a polarized light, the amyloid fibrils stood out in their hallmark “apple green” (which, at least to my eye, appears more turquoise on a computer screen).

These amyloid deposits stiffen the heart muscle, preventing it from expanding and pumping blood efficiently. Depending on where the amyloid localizes, it may also cause irregular heartbeats. And it doesn’t stop with the heart. Amyloid plaques can affect many other parts of the body, including the kidneys, liver, spleen, intestines, tongue, nerves, muscles, ligaments, brain, and even skin. In most cases, these sheet-like deposits stiffen and damage tissue, impairing its normal functions.

Unfortunately, amyloidosis is a relentless disease, and the outlook for patients is often poor, with some requiring organ transplants. Research supported by NIH continues to identify preventive strategies to block the deposit of these proteins, or even to develop ways to help clear the deposits once they have occurred.


BioArt, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

William Lewis, Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine

Amyloidosis. (NIH MedlinePlus)

BioArt 2013 Exhibit. The public can view an exhibit of the winning art at the NIH Visitor Center. Located in Bethesda, MD, the Center is open from 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. M–F.

NIH support: National Institute on Drug Abuse

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