Red cells' dynamic morphologies govern blood shear thinning under microcirculatory flow conditions

L Lanotte and J Mauer and S Mendez and DA Fedosov and JM Fromental and V Claveria and F Nicoud and G Gompper and M Abkarian, PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 113, 13289-13294 (2016).

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1608074113

Blood viscosity decreases with shear stress, a property essential for an efficient perfusion of the vascular tree. Shear thinning is intimately related to the dynamics and mutual interactions of RBCs, the major component of blood. Because of the lack of knowledge about the behavior of RBCs under physiological conditions, the link between RBC dynamics and blood rheology remains unsettled. We performed experiments and simulations in microcirculatory flow conditions of viscosity, shear rates, and volume fractions, and our study reveals rich RBC dynamics that govern shear thinning. In contrast to the current paradigm, which assumes that RBCs align steadily around the flow direction while their membranes and cytoplasm circulate, we show that RBCs successively tumble, roll, deform into rolling stomatocytes, and, finally, adopt highly deformed polylobed shapes for increasing shear stresses, even for semidilute volume fractions of the microcirculation. Our results suggest that any pathological change in plasma composition, RBC cytosol viscosity, or membrane mechanical properties will affect the onset of these morphological transitions and should play a central role in pathological blood rheology and flow behavior.

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