The amount of fibrotic material in dystrophic mouse muscles relates to contractile function, but not passive function. Collagen fibers in skeletal muscle are associated with increased passive muscle stiffness in fibrotic muscles. The alignment of collagen is independently associated with passive stiffness in dystrophic skeletal muscles. These outcomes demonstrate that collagen architecture rather than collagen content should be a target of anti-fibrotic therapies to treat muscle stiffness.
Fibrosis is prominent in many skeletal muscle pathologies including dystrophies, neurological disorders, cachexia, chronic kidney disease, sarcopenia, and metabolic disorders. Fibrosis in muscle is associated with decreased contractile forces and increased passive stiffness that limits joint mobility leading to contractures. However, the assumption that more fibrotic material is directly related to decreased function has not held true. Here we utilize novel measurement of ECM and collagen architecture to relate ECM form to muscle function. We used mdx mice, a model for Duchenne muscular dystrophy that becomes fibrotic, and wildtype mice. In this model extensor digitorum longus (EDL) muscle was significantly stiffer, but with similar total collagen while the soleus muscle did not change stiffness, but increased collagen. The stiffness of the EDL was associated with increased collagen cross-linking as determined by collagen solubility. Measurement of ECM alignment using polarized light microscopy showed a robust relationship between stiffness and alignment for wildtype muscle that broke down in mdx muscles. Direct visualization of large collagen fibers with second harmonic generation imaging revealed their relative abundance in stiff muscles. Collagen fiber alignment was linked to stiffness across all muscles investigated and the most significant factor in a multiple linear regression-based model of muscle stiffness from ECM parameters. This work establishes novel characteristics of skeletal muscle ECM architecture and provides evidence for mechanical function of collagen fibers in muscle. This finding suggests that anti-fibrotic strategies to enhance muscle function and excessive stiffness should target large collagen fibers and their alignment rather than total collagen. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.