Tissue Strain Reorganizes Collagen With a Switchlike Response That Regulates Neuronal Extracellular Signal-Regulated Kinase Phosphorylation In Vitro: Implications for Ligamentous Injury and Mechanotransduction

J Biomech Eng. 2016 Feb;138(2):021013. doi: 10.1115/1.4031975.


Excessive loading of ligaments can activate the neural afferents that innervate the collagenous tissue, leading to a host of pathologies including pain. An integrated experimental and modeling approach was used to define the responses of neurons and the surrounding collagen fibers to the ligamentous matrix loading and to begin to understand how macroscopic deformation is translated to neuronal loading and signaling. A neuron-collagen construct (NCC) developed to mimic innervation of collagenous tissue underwent tension to strains simulating nonpainful (8%) or painful ligament loading (16%). Both neuronal phosphorylation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK), which is related to neuroplasticity (R2 ≥ 0.041; p ≤ 0.0171) and neuronal aspect ratio (AR) (R2 ≥ 0.250; p < 0.0001), were significantly correlated with tissue-level strains. As NCC strains increased during a slowly applied loading (1%/s), a "switchlike" fiber realignment response was detected with collagen reorganization occurring only above a transition point of 11.3% strain. A finite-element based discrete fiber network (DFN) model predicted that at bulk strains above the transition point, heterogeneous fiber strains were both tensile and compressive and increased, with strains in some fibers along the loading direction exceeding the applied bulk strain. The transition point identified for changes in collagen fiber realignment was consistent with the measured strain threshold (11.7% with a 95% confidence interval of 10.2-13.4%) for elevating ERK phosphorylation after loading. As with collagen fiber realignment, the greatest degree of neuronal reorientation toward the loading direction was observed at the NCC distraction corresponding to painful loading. Because activation of neuronal ERK occurred only at strains that produced evident collagen fiber realignment, findings suggest that tissue strain-induced changes in the micromechanical environment, especially altered local collagen fiber kinematics, may be associated with mechanotransduction signaling in neurons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Collagen / metabolism*
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases / metabolism*
  • Ligaments / injuries*
  • Ligaments / physiology
  • Mechanotransduction, Cellular*
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Phosphorylation
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Stress, Mechanical*
  • Weight-Bearing


  • Collagen
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases