Last updated January 19, 2018 at 4:50 pm
A new way of looking at things shows how an injury impacts overall health and helps test therapeutic responses.
A US study is the first to convert the entire body’s network of bones and muscles into a comprehensive mathematical model.
The authors say it could help clinicians and physical therapists predict compensatory injuries and suggest ways of avoiding them.
The networks research was led by Danielle Bassett at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. Network science examines how the actions of a system’s individual parts affect the behavior of the system as a whole. It is more commonly used to study, say, how computer chip components work together, or interactions between social media users.
But in this case, the researchers have treated the body as a networked system and hope to encourage others to think of it in the same holistic way.
“People who study biomechanics tend to focus on a single part of the body – the shoulder, the wrist, or the knee,” Bassett said. “Because that knowledge is so localised, they don’t have a way of connecting it to the rest of the body or to think about compensatory injuries that are far away.”
The team’s network model can provide insights into how an injury in one part of the body can lead to increased strain on another, they say. What’s more, it can be tailored to individuals.
While the new way of looking things might be groundbreaking, the researchers turned to older work to prepare their model.
“We actually had to go back to Gray’s Anatomy type texts. It was a long, painstaking effort figuring out which bone connects to which muscle and collating that data into a full network.”
The network provides a picture of how forces are transmitted throughout the musculoskeletal system.
“We can say, ‘if this is the muscle you injured, here are the other muscles we should be most worried about,’” Bassett said.
The researchers also compared their network to the “motor homunculus,” a way of mapping specific brain regions to the parts of the body they control.
“We saw that the more impact that a muscle has on the rest of the body, the more real estate we use in our brain to control it,” Bassett said. “We think it’s a way for us to maintain robustness in those muscles — if a muscle can have a massive impact on the rest of the body you don’t want any error in controlling it.”
The study was published in the open access journal PLOS Biology.