Postmortem changes in brain cell structure: a review

Margaret M. Krassner, Justin Kauffman, Allison Sowa, Katarzyna Cialowicz, Samantha Walsh, Kurt Farrell, John F. Crary, Andrew T. McKenzie

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Brain cell structure is a key determinant of neural function that is frequently altered in neurobiological disorders. Following the global loss of blood flow to the brain that initiates the postmortem interval (PMI), cells rapidly become depleted of energy and begin to decompose. To ensure that our methods for studying the brain using autopsy tissue are robust and reproducible, there is a critical need to delineate the expected changes in brain cell morphometry during the PMI. We searched multiple databases to identify studies measuring the effects of PMI on the morphometry (i.e. external dimensions) of brain cells. We screened 2119 abstracts, 361 full texts, and included 172 studies. Mechanistically, fluid shifts causing cell volume alterations and vacuolization are an early event in the PMI, while the loss of the ability to visualize cell membranes altogether is a later event. Decomposition rates are highly heterogenous and depend on the methods for visualization, the structural feature of interest, and modifying variables such as the storage temperature or the species. Geometrically, deformations of cell membranes are common early events that initiate within minutes. On the other hand, topological rela-tionships between cellular features appear to remain intact for more extendedperiods. Taken together, there is an uncertain period of time, usually ranging from several hours to several days, over which cell membrane structure is progressively lost. This review may be helpful for investigators studying human postmortem brain tissue, wherein the PMI is an unavoidable aspect of the research.

Original languageEnglish
Article number10
JournalFree Neuropathology
StatePublished - 2023


  • Autolysis
  • Brain mapping
  • Oncotic necrosis
  • Postmortem changes
  • Species differences
  • Staining methods


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