Anat Cell Biol.  2013 Mar;46(1):39-48. 10.5115/acb.2013.46.1.39.

Distribution of elastic fibers in the head and neck: a histological study using late-stage human fetuses

  • 1Department of Anatomy, Tokyo Dental College, Chiba, Japan.
  • 2Department of Anatomy and Embryology II, Faculty of Medicine, Complutense University, Madrid, Spain.
  • 3Division of Internal Medicine, Iwamizawa Kojin-kai Hospital, Iwamizawa, Japan.


There is little or no information about the distribution of elastic fibers in the human fetal head. We examined this issue in 15 late-stage fetuses (crown-rump length, 220-320 mm) using aldehyde-fuchsin and elastica-Masson staining, and we used the arterial wall elastic laminae and external ear cartilages as positive staining controls. The posterior pharyngeal wall, as well as the ligaments connecting the laryngeal cartilages, contained abundant elastic fibers. In contrast with the sphenomandibular ligament and the temporomandibular joint disk, in which elastic fibers were partly present, the discomalleolar ligament and the fascial structures around the pterygoid muscles did not have any elastic fibers. In addition, the posterior marginal fascia of the prestyloid space did contain such fibers. Notably, in the middle ear, elastic fibers accumulated along the tendons of the tensor tympani and stapedius muscles and in the joint capsules of the ear ossicle articulations. Elastic fibers were not seen in any other muscle tendons or vertebral facet capsules in the head and neck. Despite being composed of smooth muscle, the orbitalis muscle did not contain any elastic fibers. The elastic fibers in the sphenomandibular ligament seemed to correspond to an intermediate step of development between Meckel's cartilage and the final ligament. Overall, there seemed to be a mini-version of elastic fiber distribution compared to that in adults and a different specific developmental pattern of connective tissues. The latter morphology might be a result of an adaptation to hypoxic conditions during development.


Elastic fibers; Sphenomandibular ligament; Ear ossicles; Head; Human fetus

MeSH Terms

Connective Tissue
Ear Cartilage
Ear Ossicles
Ear, Middle
Elastic Tissue
Joint Capsule
Laryngeal Cartilages
Muscle, Smooth
Pterygoid Muscles
Temporomandibular Joint Disc
Tensor Tympani


  • Fig. 1 Potential sites for elastic fibers in the fetal head. Sagittal sections. (A, C, E, F) Aldehyde-fuchsin staining. (B, D, G) Elastica-Masson staining. (A, B) The wall of the external carotid artery, (C, D) the skin covering the nuchal area, (E-G) the external auditory meatus (EAM). Panels (A) and (B) and panels (C) and (D) are pairs of consecutive sections. In (A) and (B), the internal elastic lamina (int lamina) is composed of circularly arranged elastic fibers, whereas the external lamina (ext lamina) is composed of sectioned longitudinal fibers identified as dots. In (C) and (D), the putative dermis (stars) contains abundant elastic fibers that run transversely. In (E), a cartilage fragment (cartilage of EAM) and a ligament between cartilages (stars) contain elastic fibers. Elastic fibers are accumulated near round cells in the center of the cartilage (arrows). Panels (F) and (G) show the ligament between cartilages in adjacent sections. Scale bar in (A)=0.1 mm (A-G).

  • Fig. 2 Elastic fibers in the ligaments and fasciae around the mandible. Sagittal sections. (A, C-E, G, H, J) Elastica-Masson staining. (B, F, I) Aldehyde-fuchsin staining. Panel (A) includes the sphenomandibular ligament (SML) and the lateral part of the disk (disk) of the temporomandibular joint. Panels (B) and (C, D) are higher-magnification views of the circles in (A). Elastic fibers are evident in the anterior layer of the SML (B, C) and the superolateral part of the joint disk (D). Panel (E) includes Reichert's cartilage (RC) and the stylopharyngeus and styloglossus muscles (SP and SG, respectively). Panels (F) and (G) are high-magnification views of the circle in (E). A fascia at the superior end of the SP contains abundant elastic fibers. Panel (H) includes Meckel's cartilage (MC) and the mandibular nerve root (MN). Panels (I) and ( J) are high-magnification views of the circle in (H). The anterior part of the perichondrium of MC contains elastic fibers ( J), but they are not stained with aldehydefuchsin (I). ECA, external carotid artery; LP, lateral pterygoid muscle; MA, masseter muscle; PS, prestyloid compartment of the parapharyngeal space. The periosteum of the mandible, see Fig. 5C. Scale bars=1 mm (A, E, H), 0.1 mm (B-D, F, G, I, J).

  • Fig. 3 Elastic fibers in the larynx, pharynx, and surrounding areas. Sagittal sections. (A, C-G) Elastica-Masson staining. (B) Aldehyde-fuchsin staining. Panel (A) includes the body and greater horn of the hyoid bone (HB and GH, respectively) and the thyroid cartilage (TC). Panels (B) and (C) are high-magnification views of the circle in (A). The lateral thyrohyoid ligament (LTHL), connecting the greater horn (GH) to the superior horn (SH) of the TC, is composed of randomly arrayed elastic fibers. Panel (D) corresponds to the circle marked D in (A). Elastic fibers run along the superior-inferior axis in a space between the palatopharyngeus muscle (PP) and the posterior pharyngeal mucosa. Panel (E) displays the cricothyroid ligament (CTL) immediately above the cricoid cartilage (CC). Panel (F) shows the pharyngotympanic tube (PTT) and its associated cartilage. Panel (G) is a high-magnification view of the circle in (F). Elastic fibers are evident at the junction between the lateral and medial laminae (LL and ML, respectively) of the cartilage. CAP, cricoarytenoideus posterior muscle; CPI, constrictor pharyngis inferior muscle; OF, Ostmann's fat; PC, pharyngeal cavity; SNL, superior laryngeal nerve;ST, sternothyroideus muscle; TVP, tensor veli palatini muscle. Scale bars=1 mm (A, F), 0.1 mm (B-E, G).

  • Fig. 4 Elastic fibers along and around the ear ossicles. Sagittal sections. (A, D, E, G) Elastica-Masson staining. (B, C, F) Aldehyde-fuchsin staining. Panel (A) displays the tympanic cavity including the malleus (M), incus (I), stapes (S), and tympanic membrane (tympanic m). Panels (B) and (E) are high-magnification views of the circle marked B, E in (A) and display the muscle-tendon interface of the stapedius muscle (SM). Asterisks in (E) indicate damage sustained during the histological procedure. Panels (C) and (D) show part of the incudostapedial joint that corresponds to the circle marked C, D in (A). Panels (F) and (G) display the interface area between the tensor tympani muscle (TT) and its tendon. Elastic fibers are located around the tendon (arrows) and at the interface (stars). FN, facial nerve; RC, Reichert's cartilage. Scale bars=1 mm (A), 0.1 mm (B-G).

  • Fig. 5 Other areas of the head. Sagittal sections. (A-C) Elastica-Masson staining. Panel (A) shows the orbitalis muscle, which contains no elastic fibers. Panel (B) shows elastic fibers in the submucosal layer (double-headed arrow) of the nose near the bony palate periosteum. Panel (C) shows elastic fibers in the periosteum of the mandible facing the masseter muscle (MA). Scale bar in (A)=0.1 mm (A-C).

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