See also comment(s) by Michael Girard •
Collagen is the main load-bearing component of cornea and sclera. When stretched, both of these tissues exhibit a behavior known as collagen fiber recruitment. In recruitment, as the tissues stretch the constitutive collagen fibers lose their natural waviness, progressively straightening. Recruited, straight, fibers bear substantially more mechanical load than non-recruited, wavy, fibers. As such, the process of recruitment underlies the well-established nonlinear macroscopic behavior of the corneoscleral shell. Recruitment has an interesting implication: when recruitment is incomplete, only a fraction of the collagen fibers is actually contributing to bear the loads, with the rest remaining "in reserve". In other words, at a given intraocular pressure (IOP), it is possible that not all the collagen fibers of the cornea and sclera are actually contributing to bear the loads. To the best of our knowledge, the fraction of corneoscleral shell fibers recruited and contributing to bear the load of IOP has not been reported. Our goal was to obtain regionally-resolved estimates of the fraction of corneoscleral collagen fibers recruited and in reserve. We developed a fiber-based microstructural constitutive model that could account for collagen fiber undulations or crimp via their tortuosity. We used experimentally-measured collagen fiber crimp tortuosity distributions in human eyes to derive region-specific nonlinear hyperelastic mechanical properties. We then built a three-dimensional axisymmetric model of the globe, assigning region-specific mechanical properties and regional anisotropy. The model was used to simulate the IOP-induced shell deformation. The model-predicted tissue stretch was then used to quantify collagen recruitment within each shell region. The calculations showed that, at low IOPs, collagen fibers in the posterior equator were recruited the fastest, such that at a physiologic IOP of 15 mmHg, over 90% of fibers were recruited, compared with only a third in the cornea and the peripapillary sclera. The differences in recruitment between regions, in turn, mean that at a physiologic IOP the posterior equator had a fiber reserve of only 10%, whereas the cornea and peripapillary sclera had two thirds. At an elevated IOP of 50 mmHg, collagen fibers in the limbus and the anterior/posterior equator were almost fully recruited, compared with 90% in the cornea and the posterior sclera, and 70% in the peripapillary sclera and the equator. That even at such an elevated IOP not all the fibers were recruited suggests that there are likely other conditions that challenge the corneoscleral tissues even more than IOP. The fraction of fibers recruited may have other potential implications. For example, fibers that are not bearing loads may be more susceptible to enzymatic digestion or remodeling. Similarly, it may be possible to control tissue stiffness through the fraction of recruited fibers without the need to add or remove collagen.
Department of Ophthalmology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, United States; Department of Bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, United States.Full article