The effects of non-ablative infrared (IR) laser treatment of collagenous tissue have been commonly interpreted in terms of collagen denaturation spread over the laser-heated tissue area. In this work, the existing model is refined to account for the recently reported laser-treated tissue heterogeneity and complex collagen degradation pattern using comprehensive optical imaging and calorimetry toolkits. Patella ligament (PL) provided a simple model of type I collagen tissue containing its full structural content from triple-helix molecules to gross architecture. PL ex vivo was subjected to IR laser treatments (laser spot, 1.6 mm) of equal dose, where the tissue temperature reached the collagen denaturation temperature of 60 ± 2°C at the laser spot epicenterin the first regime, and was limited to 67 ± 2°C in the second regime. The collagen network was analyzed versus distance from the epicenter. Experimental characterization of the collagenous tissue at all structural levels included cross-polarization optical coherence tomography, nonlinear optical microscopy, light microscopy/histology, and differential scanning calorimetry. Regressive rearrangement of the PL collagen network was found to spread well outside the laser spot epicenter (>2 mm) and was accompanied by multilevel hierarchical reorganization of collagen. Four zones of distinct optical and morphological properties were identified, all elliptical in shape, and elongated in the direction perpendicular to the PL long axis. Although the collagen transformation into a random-coil molecular structure was occasionally observed, it was mechanical integrity of the supramolecular structures that was primarily compromised. We found that the structural rearrangement of the collagen network related primarily to the heat-induced thermo-mechanical effects rather than molecular unfolding. The current body of evidence supports the notion that the supramolecular collagen structure suffered degradation of various degrees, which gave rise to the observed zonal character of the laser-treated lesion.
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