Age-related changes in the plasticity and toughness of human cortical bone at multiple length scales

Elizabeth A. Zimmermann, Eric Schaible, Hrishikesh Bale, Holly D. Barth, Simon Y. Tang, Peter Reichert, Bjoern Busse, Tamara Alliston, Joel W. Ager, Robert O. Ritchie

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285 Scopus citations


The structure of human cortical bone evolves over multiple length scales from its basic constituents of collagen and hydroxyapatite at the nanoscale to osteonal structures at near-millimeter dimensions, which all provide the basis for its mechanical properties. To resistfracture, bone's toughness is derived intrinsically through plasticity (e.g., fibrillar sliding) at structural scales typically below a micrometer and extrinsically (i.e., during crack growth) through mechanisms (e.g., crack deflection/bridging) generated at larger structuralscales. Biological factors such as aging lead to a markedly increased fracture risk, which is often associated with an age-related loss in bone mass (bone quantity). However, we find that age-related structural changes can significantly degrade the fracture resistance(bone quality) over multiple length scales. Using in situ small-angle X-ray scattering and wide-angle X-ray diffraction to characterize submicrometer structural changes and synchrotron X-ray computed tomography and in situ fracture-toughness measurements in the scanning electron microscope to characterize effects at micrometerscales, we show how these age-related structural changes at differing size scales degrade both the intrinsic and extrinsic toughness of bone. Specifically, we attribute the loss in toughness to increased nonenzymatic collagen cross-linking, which suppresses plasticity at nanoscale dimensions, and to an increased osteonal density, which limits the potency of crack-bridging mechanisms at micrometer scales. The link between these processes is that the increasedstiffness of the cross-linked collagen requires energy to be absorbedby "plastic" deformation at higher structural levels, which occurs by the process of microcracking.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14416-14421
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number35
StatePublished - Aug 30 2011


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