The effect of fibrillar degradation on the mechanics of articular cartilage: a computational model

  • Tanvir R. FaisalEmail author
  • Malek Adouni
  • Yasin Y. Dhaher
Original Paper


The pathogenesis and pathophysiological underpinnings of cartilage degradation are not well understood. Either mechanically or enzymatically mediated degeneration at the fibril level can lead to acute focal injuries that will, overtime, cause significant cartilage degradation. Understanding the relationship between external loading and the basic molecular structure of cartilage requires establishing a connection between the fibril-level defects and its aggregate effect on cartilage. In this work, we provide a multiscale constitutive model of cartilage to elucidate the effect of two plausible fibril degradation mechanisms on the aggregate tissue: tropocollagen crosslink failure (β) and a generalized surface degradation (δ). Using our model, the mechanics of aggregate tissue shows differed yield stress and post-yield behavior after crosslink failure and surface degradation compared to intact cartilage, and the tissue-level aggregate behaviors are different from the fibrillar behaviors observed in the molecular dynamics simulations. We also compared the effect of fibrillar defects in terms of crosslink failure and surface degradation in different layers of cartilage within the macroscale tissue construct during a simulated nanoindentation test. Although the mechanical properties of cartilage tissue were largely contingent upon the mechanical properties of the fibril, the macroscale mechanics of cartilage tissue showed ~ 10% variation in yield strain (tissue yield strain: ~ 27 to ~ 37%) compared to fibrillar yield strain (fibrillar yield strain: ~ 16 to ~ 26%) for crosslink failure and ~ 7% difference for the surface degradation (yield strain variations at the tissue: ~ 30 to ~ 37% and fibril: ~ 24 to ~ 26%) at the superficial layer. The yield strain was further delayed in middle layers at least up to 30% irrespective of the failure mechanisms. The cartilage tissue appeared to withstand more strain than the fibrils. The degeneration mechanisms of fibril differentially influenced the aggregate mechanics of cartilage, and the deviation may be attributed to fiber–matrix interplay, depth-dependent fiber orientation and fibrillar defects with different degradation mechanisms. The understanding of the aggregate stress–strain behavior of cartilage tissue, cartilage degradation and its underlying biomechanical factors is important for developing engineering approaches and therapeutic interventions for cartilage pathologies.


Cartilage degradation Crosslink failure Surface degradation Multiscale modeling 



The authors would like to thank Bethany Powell (PhD candidate) and David Malaspina (research fellow) in the Szleifer and Dhaher Labs at Northwestern University for the discussion in implementing surface adsorption to estimate surface degradation. The authors greatly appreciate the financial support of the National Institutes of Health for the Grant # U01 EB015410-01A1.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physical Medicine and RehabilitationNorthwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Legs + Walking LabShirley Ryan AbilityLabChicagoUSA
  3. 3.Department of Biomedical EngineeringNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  4. 4.Department of Mechanical EngineeringAustralian College of KuwaitEast MeshrifKuwait
  5. 5.Department of Mechanical EngineeringUniversity of Louisiana at LafayetteLafayetteUSA

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