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Image of the week: ‘ferning’ saliva

31 Oct, 2014

B0008610 Human saliva displaying ferning

The beautiful branching structure of these crystal formations may remind you of minature ferns. If so, you aren’t alone – our image this week depicts of a phenomenon known as “ferning”!  What you are looking at here is a microscope image of human saliva.

The ferning pattern of crystallization is used to identify when a woman is at their most fertile period in the menstrual cycle. The oestrogen spike during a woman’s most fertile period causes salt crystals to form in her saliva, creating this pattern when magnified.

Although studies suggest that the reliability of this as a measure of ovulation is relatively weak, research  has begun to investigate specific substances found in saliva during ovulation, creating potential for a non-invasive diagnostic marker for ovulation. Knowing when ovulation occurs is important in IVF and other fertility treatments, but the best methods currently involve taking blood or ultrasounds.

Saliva ferning has also been investigated as a way of diagnosing a condition called Sjögren’s Syndrome (SS). SS is an autoimmune disease in which tear and salivary glands are attacked by white blood cells. A ferning pattern in tears or saliva may be an indicator of damage to the glands producing them.

Image credit: Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK, Wellcome Images

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. Over 100,000 high resolution images from our historical collections are now free to use under the Creative Commons-Attribution only (CC-BY) licence.

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