"What we saw is that with slow loading rates, axons can stretch up to at least 100 percent with no signs of damage," Smith said. "But at faster rates, axons start displaying the same swellings you see in the TBI patients. This process occurs even with relatively short stretch at fast rates. So the rate at which stretch is applied is the important component, such as occurs during rapid movement of the brain and stretching of axons due to head impact from a fall, assault or automobile crash."
This observation still did not explain to researchers why microtubules, the stiffest part of the axon, were the parts that were breaking. To solve that puzzle, the researchers had to delve even deeper into their structure.
Microtubules are closely packed together inside axons, somewhat like a bundle of straws. Binding the individual straws together is the protein tau. Other biophysical modelers had previously accounted for the geometry and elastic properties of the axon during a stretching injury based on Smith's work but did not have good data for representing tau's role in the overall behavior of the system when it is loaded with stress over different lengths of time.
"You need to know the elastic properties of tau," Shenoy said, "because when you load the microtubules with stress, you load the tau as well. How these two parts distribute the stress between them is going to have major impact on the system as a whole."
Shenoy and his colleagues had a sense of tau's elastic properties but did not have hard numbers until a 2011 experiment from a Swiss and German research team physically stretched out lengths of tau by plucking it with the tip of an atomic force microscope.
"This experiment demonstrated that tau is viscoelastic," Shenoy said. "Like Silly Putty, when you add stress to it slowly, it st
|Contact: Evan Lerner|
University of Pennsylvania