Physical basis of colors seen in Congo red-stained amyloid in polarized light

Alexander J. Howie*, Douglas B. Brewer, Daniel Howell, Adrian P. Jones

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

98 Citations (Scopus)


Amyloid stained by Congo red is traditionally said to show apple-green birefringence in polarized light, although in practice various colors may be seen between accurately crossed polarizing filters, called polarizer and analyzer. Other colors are seen as the polarizer and analyzer are uncrossed and sometimes when the slide is rotated. Previously, there has been no satisfactory explanation of these properties. Birefringence means that a material has two refractive indices, depending on its orientation in polarized light. Birefringence can change linearly polarized light to elliptically polarized, which allows light to pass a crossed analyzer. The birefringence of orientated Congo red varied with wavelength and was maximal near its absorption peak, changing from negative (slow axis of transmission perpendicular to smears or amyloid fibrils) on the shortwave side of the peak to positive (slow axis parallel) on the longwave side. This was explained by a property of any light-absorbing substance called anomalous dispersion of the refractive index around an absorption peak. Negative birefringence gave transmission of blue, positive gave yellow, and the mixture was perceived as green. This explains how green occurs in ideal conditions. Additional or strain birefringence in the optical system, such as in glass slides, partly or completely eliminated blue or yellow, giving yellow/green or yellow, and blue/green or blue, which are commonly seen in practice and in illustrations. With uncrossing of polarizer or analyzer, birefringent effects declined and dichroic effects appeared, giving progressive changes from green to red as the plane of polarization approached the absorbing axis and from green to colorless in the opposite way. This asymmetry of effects is useful to pathologists as a confirmation of amyloid. Rather than showing 'apple-green birefringence in polarized light' as often reported, Congo red-stained amyloid, when examined between crossed polarizer and analyzer, should more accurately be said to show anomalous colors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)232-242
Number of pages11
JournalLaboratory Investigation
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2008
Externally publishedYes


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