Disrupted osteocyte connectivity and pericellular fluid flow in bone with aging and defective TGF-β signaling

A study combining transcriptomics (RNAseq) and computational modelling (CFD) to investigated the role played by aging and TGF-β in osteocyte mechanosensing, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2021 and available here.


Skeletal fragility in the elderly does not simply result from a loss of bone mass. However, the mechanisms underlying the concurrent decline in bone mass, quality, and mechanosensitivity with age remain unclear. The important role of osteocytes in these processes and the age-related degeneration of the intricate lacunocanalicular network (LCN) in which osteocytes reside point to a primary role for osteocytes in bone aging. Since LCN complexity severely limits experimental dissection of these mechanisms in vivo, we used two in silico approaches to test the hypothesis that LCN degeneration, due to aging or an osteocyte-intrinsic defect in transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) signaling (TβRIIocy−/−), is sufficient to compromise essential osteocyte responsibilities of mass transport and exposure to mechanical stimuli. Using reconstructed confocal images of bone with fluorescently labeled osteocytes, we found that osteocytes from aged and TβRIIocy−/− mice had 33 to 45% fewer, and more tortuous, canaliculi. Connectomic network analysis revealed that diminished canalicular density is sufficient to impair diffusion even with intact osteocyte numbers and overall LCN architecture. Computational fluid dynamics predicts that the corresponding drop in shear stress experienced by aged or TβRIIocy−/− osteocytes is highly sensitive to canalicular surface area but not tortuosity. Simulated expansion of the osteocyte pericellular space to mimic osteocyte perilacunar/canalicular remodeling restored predicted shear stress for aged osteocytes to young levels. Overall, these models show how loss of LCN volume through LCN pruning may lead to impaired fluid dynamics and osteocyte exposure to mechanostimulation. Furthermore, osteocytes emerge as targets of age-related therapeutic efforts to restore bone health and function.