A review of techniques for visualising soft tissue microstructure deformation and quantifying strain Ex Vivo

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Many biological tissues have a complex hierarchical structure allowing them to function under demanding physiological loading conditions. Structural changes caused by ageing or disease can lead to loss of mechanical function. Therefore, it is necessary to characterise tissue structure to understand normal tissue function and the progression of disease. Ideally intact native tissues should be imaged in 3D and under physiological loading conditions. The current published in situ imaging methodologies demonstrate a compromise between imaging limitations and maintaining the samples native mechanical function. This review gives an overview of in situ imaging techniques used to visualise microstructural deformation of soft tissue, including three case studies of different tissues (tendon, intervertebral disc and artery). Some of the imaging techniques restricted analysis to observational mechanics or discrete strain measurement from invasive markers. Full-field local surface strain measurement has been achieved using digital image correlation. Volumetric strain fields have successfully been quantified from in situ X-ray microtomography (micro-CT) studies of bone using digital volume correlation but not in soft tissue due to low X-ray transmission contrast. With the latest developments in micro-CT showing in-line phase contrast capability to resolve native soft tissue microstructure, there is potential for future soft tissue mechanics research where 3D local strain can be quantified. These methods will provide information on the local 3D micromechanical environment experienced by cells in healthy, aged and diseased tissues. It is hoped that future applications of in situ imaging techniques will impact positively on the design and testing of potential tissue replacements or regenerative therapies.

Lay description

The soft tissues in our bodies, such as tendons, intervertebral discs and arteries, have evolved to have complicated structures which deform and bear load during normal function. Small changes in these structures can occur with age and disease which then leads to loss of function. Therefore, it is important to image tissue microstructure in 3D and under functional conditions. This paper gives an overview of imaging techniques used to record the deformation of soft tissue microstructures. Commonly there are compromises between obtaining the best imaging result and retaining the samples native structure and function. For example, invasive markers and dissecting samples damages the tissues natural structure, and staining or clearing (making the tissue more transparent) can distort tissue structure. Structural deformation has been quantified from 2D imaging techniques (digital image correlation) to create surface strain maps which help identify local tissue mechanics. When extended to 3D (digital volume correlation), deformation measurement has been limited to bone samples using X-ray micro-CT. Recently it has been possible to image the 3D structure of soft tissue using X-ray micro-CT meaning that there is potential for internal soft tissue mechanics to be mapped in 3D. Future application of micro-CT and digital volume correlation will be important for soft tissue mechanics studies particularly to understand normal function, progression of disease and in the design of tissue replacements.

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