Skin is a complex, multi-layered organ, with important functions in the protection of the body. The dermis provides structural support to the epidermal barrier, and thus has attracted a large number of mechanical studies. As the dermis is made of a mixture of stiff fibres embedded in a soft non-fibrillar matrix, it is classically considered that its mechanical response is based on an initial alignment of the fibres, followed by the stretching of the aligned fibres. Using a recently developed set-up combining multiphoton microscopy with mechanical assay, we imaged the fibres network evolution during dermis stretching. These observations, combined with a wide set of mechanical tests, allowed us to challenge the classical microstructural interpretation of the mechanical properties of the dermis: we observed a continuous alignment of the collagen fibres along the stretching. All our results can be explained if each fibre contributes by a given stress to the global response. This plastic response is likely due to inner sliding inside each fibre. The non-linear mechanical response is due to structural effects of the fibres network in interaction with the surrounding non-linear matrix. This multiscale interpretation explains our results on genetically-modified mice with a simple alteration of the dermis microstructure.
Statement of significance: Soft tissues, as skin, tendon or aorta, are made of extra-cellular matrix, with very few cells embedded inside. The matrix is a mixture of water and biomolecules, which include the collagen fibre network. The role of the collagen is fundamental since the network is supposed to control the tissue mechanical properties and remodeling: the cells attach to the collagen fibres and feel the network deformations. This paper challenges the classical link between fibres organization and mechanical properties. To do so, it uses multiscale observations combined to a large set of mechanical loading. It thus appears that the behaviour at low stretches is mostly controlled by the network structural response, while, at large stretches, the fibre inner-sliding dominate.
Keywords: Biomechanics; Collagen; Microstructure; Multiphoton microscopy; Skin.
Copyright © 2017 Acta Materialia Inc. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.