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Morphological and functional properties of the conducting human airways investigated by in vivo computed tomography and in vitro MRI.

  • Van de Moortele, Tristan1
  • Wendt, Christine H2
  • Coletti, Filippo1
  • 1 Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics, University of Minnesota , Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • 2 Department of Medicine, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, University of Minnesota , Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Published Article
Journal of Applied Physiology
American Physiological Society
Publication Date
Feb 01, 2018
DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00490.2017
PMID: 29097628


The accurate representation of the human airway anatomy is crucial for understanding and modeling the structure-function relationship in both healthy and diseased lungs. The present knowledge in this area is based on morphometric studies of excised lung casts, partially complemented by in vivo studies in which computed tomography (CT) was used on a small number of subjects. In the present study, we analyzed CT scans of a cohort of healthy subjects and obtained comprehensive morphometric information down to the seventh generation of bronchial branching, including airway diameter, length, branching angle, and rotation angle. Although some of the geometric parameters (such as the child-to-parent branch diameter ratio) are found to be in line with accepted values, for others (such as the branch length-to-diameter ratio) our findings challenge the common assumptions. We also evaluated several metrics of self-similarity, including the fractal dimension of the airway tree. Additionally, we used phase-contrast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to obtain the volumetric flow field in the three-dimensional-printed airway model of one of the subjects during steady inhalation. This is used to relate structural and functional parameters and, in particular, to close the power-law relationship between branch flow rate and diameter. The diameter exponent is found to be significantly lower than in the usually assumed Poiseuille regime, which we attribute to the strong secondary (i.e., transverse) velocity component. The strength of the secondary velocity with respect to the axial component exceeds the levels found in idealized airway models and persists within the first seven generations. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We performed a comprehensive computed tomography-based study of the conductive airway morphology in normal human subjects, including branch diameter, length, and mutual angles. We found significant departure from classic homothetic relationships. We also carried out MRI measurements of the three-dimensional inspiratory flow in an anatomy-based model and directly assessed structure-function relationships that have so far been assumed. We found that strong secondary flows (i.e., transverse velocity components) persist through the first seven generations of bronchial branching.

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