Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Mathematics helps medicine. And vice versa - issue#1

Seeking for a model of the skeletal muscles


Sarcopenia affects muscles in elderly people. A mathematics-based project, exploiting contributions from five other disciplinary areas, is aimed at predicting and describing this disease.

A research team used to develop mathematical models aimed at engineering applications started working on a “living” material: the muscle tissue. This meant a great change in perspective, and above all a great opportunity to operate within an innovative and promising field of study.

From July 2013 the research team led by Prof. Alessandro Musesti –faculty member at the Department of Mathematics and Physics, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Brescia – works on a project devoted to mathematical modeling of the skeletal muscle. The aim is to predict and describe the damage due to sarcopenia – a syndrome that causes the progressive loss of muscle mass and strength, and subsequent increasing ambulatory difficulties.
Sarcopenia can affect everybody who is over 50 and, when it is matched with other diseases or the patient is forced to long immobility periods, can extensively reduce the autonomy of the patient.

“The value-added of this research is exactly working side by side with medical doctors,” explained Alessandro Musesti, together with Giulio Giusteri (31-year-old) and Giulia Giantesio (29-year-old), two members of his research team. “With the geriatricians working at the Center for Ageing Medicine of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore-Policlinico Gemelli, Rome  – there is a constant exchange of information and feedbacks”. The multidisciplinarity characterizing Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore is the ideal ground for a similar project to flourish. This is a broad research, conceived to cover every aspect implied in such a complex and impactful issue. “The research team includes 15 people” reminds Prof. Musesti “among which some colleagues from Agricultural Sciences and others from Environmental Sciences; the former explore the impact of nutrition, while the latter study the influence of environmental factors such as pollution”.

This project is part of a university-wide research initiative, which involves people working in five different research areas and affiliated to four campuses, dealing with the issues of ageing.

The research stems from the problem of the diagnosis of sarcopenia: how to determine if a patient is affected by sarcopenia, and how to measure the progression of the disease? “The optimal technique would be Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)” maintain the researchers “but this test is way too invasive and expensive”. Nowadays, geriatricians use Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA), which only requires the external application of electrodes on the patient’s body, although such examination does not consider the multiplicity of the factors intervening on the loss of muscle tone. “Our aim is to create a mathematical model for the muscle tissue able to describe in quantitative terms the variations of some measurable physiological parameters (e.g. the electrical conductivity of the tissue, or the muscle volume and tone) caused by the variation of other measurable factors connected to diet, life-style, medications, environmental exposure. Finding a quantitative correlation among the various factors would enable us to formulate a predictive theory about the progression of the disease”.

After the preliminary data collection operated by the geriatricians based in Rome, the mathematicians based in Brescia developed the first formulae to measure the muscle mass of limbs. Those formulae will now be validated from a clinical point of view by the geriatricians themselves. “The second step of the project” argued the researchers “consists in finding the right formulae able to correlate the muscle mass amount with the physical performance: we want to understand whether the muscle mass is the only element able to determine performance, or other factors come into play”. At this point the other members of the research network start their work: the scholars studying nutrition are expected to plan different kinds of diets that could be useful in the treatment of sarcopenia; scholars studying environmental sciences are asked to evaluate external factors, such as air quality”.

According to Prof. Musesti and colleagues, “a mathematical model like this has the advantage to enable virtual computer-based experiments in order to test situations not reproducible in vivo–namely medication overdose, diets poor in specific nutrients, environmental overexposure to a harmful substance”. The ultimate aim is to measure not only the quantity but also the quality of the muscle. The desired model would have an important medical value, but it would have a meaningful relevance in mathematical terms as well, and it would certainly gain much interest in the field.

Both the minds and the powerful computers of the Department of Mathematics and Physics at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Brescia are at work, while the daily clinical activity goes on in Rome to improve the life quality of an ageing population. The interaction and sharing of knowledge between researchers in such diverse fields represent a hope for everybody’s future.


Further information:






MUSESTI, ALESSANDRO (associate professor in Mathematical Physics)
GIUSTERI, GIULIO (assistant professor in Mathematical Physics)
GIANTESIO, GIULIA (postdoctoral fellow in Mathematical Physics)
MARZOCCHI, ALFREDO (full professor in Mathematical Physics)
LUSSARDI, LUCA (assistant professor in Geometry)
MASTAGLIO, SARA (PhD student in Mathematical Physics)

ONDER, GRAZIANO (assistant professor in Geriatrics)
D'ASCENZO, MARCELLO (associate professor in Human Physiology)

Agricultural Science:
ROSSI, FILIPPO (assistant professor in Dietary Technics)
TREVISI, ERMINIO (assistant professor in Zootechnics)

Environmental Science:
GEROSA, GIACOMO (associate professor in Environmental Science)
FINCO, ANGELO (assistant professor in Environmental Science)
MARZUOLI, RICCARDO (assistant professor in Environmental Science)

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