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Plasticity, cars and brains - a surprising connection

By Eric Van Der Giessen (University of Groningen)

The word 'plasticity' is likely to make almost everyone in this symposium think of the irreversible deformation process that either limit the allowable loading on a structure or that enables the permanent shaping of, for instance, a car body. Plasticity is an emergent phenomenon caused by the motion of defects in the microstructure of the material, such as dislocations in crystallographic metals and shear transformation zones in amorphous polymers. While the motion of defects is sensitive to various environmental factors, including temperature and chemistry, the key driving force is mechanical stress. Arguably the biggest challenge in the micromechanics of plasticity has been to connect the motion of defects at the microscopic scale to plastic deformation at the macroscopic scale taking into account the heterogeneity of stress and deformation at all (intermediate) length scales. Carrying out this research has critically relied on another form of plasticity: 'brain plasticity'. This is a special case of the generic process of 'cell plasticity', a hot topic in developmental biology and medicine since its 'discovery' almost a century after Volterra's description of a dislocation. Cell plasticity denotes the phenomenon that cells are able to transform into another cell type when transplanted to a different environment. Inside the brain, neuronal cell plasticity is the process by which the brain develops as we learn. But also, cell plasticity is a hallmark of cancer. Interestingly for the present community, there is growing evidence that mechanical stress plays a major role in the complex interaction between cell and environment. In this talk, I will give a quick introduction into especially brain plasticity from a materials science point of view. I hope to convince the audience that life is not just governed by (bio-) chemistry and that it may offer challenges for the coming century of micromechanics.

Ⓒ Photos:Toerisme Leuven