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Hard Head: Skull Strength May Lead To Osteoporosis Prevention

December 22, 2009
Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London have uncovered fundamental differences between the bone that makes up the skull and the bones in our limbs, which could hold the key to tackling bone weakness and fractures. Bones in the arms and legs become weak and vulnerable to breaks when they are not maintained by weight bearing exercise. However skull bone, which bears almost no weight, remains particularly resistant to breaking. The research, published in PLoS ONE*, offers an explanation for this phenomenon for the first time and this understanding of the differences between the two types of bone could lead to new ways to treat or prevent osteoporosis, a disease characterized by bone thinning that leads to fragile bones prone to breaking. The condition becomes more common as we age, especially in post-menopausal women when levels of estrogen fall dramatically. In those over age 50, it affects half of all women and a fifth of all men. The researchers wanted to understand why the skull bones are resistant to bone thinning as they age, even in post-menopausal women. By examining rat bone cells from the skull and comparing them with cells from limb bone, they found differences between the appearance of the cells and how they behaved in the lab. They also noticed that treating the cells with estrogen had a far greater effect on the cells from the limb bone. Because the differences are so profound, the researchers believe that they are set very early on in life–probably when the bones are still forming in the womb. The researchers also made a detailed genetic study of the two types of bone cell and found a startling level of difference between the two. Commented lead author Dr Simon Rawlinson, lecturer in oral biology at Queen Mary, "This research is exciting because it tells us why our skulls remain so tough as we age compared to the bones in our arms and legs. Now we understand this phenomenon better, we also understand osteoporosis better. And this has opened up many new lines of research into how the disease could be treated or even prevented."