We have constructed an electrokinetic surface probe capable of applying small sinusoidal currents to the surface of articular cartilage and measuring the resulting current-generated stress with a piezoelectric sensor. Using the probe, we have characterized the electromechanical response of excised discs of normal and chemically modified adult bovine femoropatellar groove cartilage. The measured stress amplitude was proportional to the applied current density and inversely proportional to the excitation frequency, consistent with a poroelastic model. As a function of bath pH, the stress amplitude exhibited a minimum in the range pH 2.4–2.8 and the phase underwent an abrupt 180° transition in the same range, consistent with an electrokinetic mechanism as the origin of the current-generated mechanical stress. Digestion of the tissue with trypsin resulted in a progressive loss of highly charged proteoglycan molecules from the tissue, with a concomitant decrease in the measured stress amplitude. These results support the feasibility of surface measurements as a means of assessing electromechanical transduction in cartilage and of detecting subtle molecular-level degradative changes in the extracellular matrix. This technique of surface spectroscopy provides a new means of nondestructively measuring the material properties of cartilage on intact joints and detecting degradative changes such as those seen in the earliest stages of osteoarthritis.

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