The broad category of neuromuscular diseases covers conditions that involve the weakness or wasting of the body muscles. These problems may occur in the spinal cord, the peripheral nerves or the muscle fibers. Some may be hereditary, while others are acquired. Commonly recognized conditions fall into the categories of myopathies, which are diseases of the muscle like muscular dystrophy, disorders of the junction where the nerve impulses are transmitted to the muscle like myasthenia gravis, and neuropathies, which are diseases of the peripheral nervous system. The diagnosis of most neuromuscular diseases rest on careful clinical evaluation of the patient, electromyography, the muscle biopsy, and in some instances, molecular genetic studies. Muscle biopsy, associated to histochemical and immunohistological techniques, plays a key role in diagnosis of many neuromuscular disorders. A number of morphological abnormalities of muscle can be recognized on histological stains such as haematoxylin and eosin and Engel trichrome. Histochemical techniques are essential for the study of muscle biopsies for four main reasons. First, they demonstrate the non-uniform nature of the muscle highlighting the different biochemical properties of specific fibre type and their selective involvement in certain disease processes. Second, they may show an absences of a particular enzyme. Third, an excess of a particular substrate can be demonstrated. Fourth, they may show structural changes in the muscle which would not be apparent with routine histological stains, such as the enzyme-deficient cores in central core disease "mouth-eaten" fibers, and abnormalities in the distribution of mitochondria. In some neuromuscular disorders there could be only non-specific myopathological features. However, a number of proteins, including sarcolemmal, sarcomeric, and nuclear proteins as well as enzymes with defects responsible for neuromuscular disorders, have been identified during the past two decades, allowing a more specific and firm diagnosis of muscle diseases. Identification of protein defects relies predominantly on immunohistochemical preparations and on Western blot analysis. While immunohistochemistry is very useful in identifying abnormal expression of primary protein abnormalities in recessive conditions, it is less helpful in detecting primary defects in dominantly inherited disorders. Abnormal immunohistochemical expression patterns can be confirmed by Western blot analysis which may also be informative in dominant disorders. Besides identification of specific protein defects, immunohistochemistry is also helpful in the differentiation of inflammatory myopathies by subtyping cellular infiltrates and demonstrating up-regulation of subtle immunological parameters. This review will summarize and describe the impact that histochemistry and immunohistochemistry has had and the possibilities it has opened up in the diagnosis of neuromuscular disorders in human as well as in veterinary myology.
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