Intervertebral Disc (IVD) Degeneration is one of the primary causes of low back pain among the adult population – the most significant cause being the degradation of aggrecan present in the extra-fibrillar matrix (EFM). Aggrecan degradation is closely associated with loss of water content leading to an alteration in the mechanical behaviour of the IVD. The loss in water content has a significant impact on the chemo-mechanical interplay of IVD biochemical constituents at the fundamental level. This work presents a mechanistic understanding of the effect of hydration, closely associated with aggrecan degradation, on the nanoscale mechanical behaviour of the hyaluronan present in the EFM of the Annulus Fibrosus. For this purpose, explicit three-dimensional molecular dynamics analyses of tensile and compressive tests are performed on a representative atomistic model of the hyaluronan present in the EFM. To account for the degradation of aggrecan, hydration levels are varied from 0 to 75% by weight of water. Analyses show that an increase in the hydration levels decreases the elastic modulus of hyaluronan in tension from ~4.6 GPa to ~2.1 GPa. On the other hand, the increase in hydration level increases the elastic moduli in axial compression from ~1.6 GPa in un-hydrated condition to ~6 GPa in 50% hydrated condition. But as the hydration levels increase to 75%, the elastic modulus reduces to ~3.5 GPa signifying a shift in load-bearing characteristic, from the solid hyaluronan component to the fluid component. Furthermore, analyses show a reduction in the intermolecular energy between hyaluronan and water, under axial tensile loading, indicating a nanoscale intermolecular debonding between hyaluronan and water molecules. This is attributed to the ability of hyaluronan to form stabilizing intra-molecular hydrogen bonds between adjacent residues. Compressive loading, on the other hand, causes intensive coiling of hyaluronan molecule, which traps more water through hydrogen bonding and aids in bearing compressive loads. Overall, study shows that hydration level has a strong influence on the atomistic level interactions between hyaluronan molecules and hyaluronan and water molecules in the EFM which influences the nanoscale mechanics of the Annulus Fibrosus.
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