Volume 7 - Year 2020 - Pages 31-40

Sensitivity Analysis of a Phenomenological Thrombosis Model and Growth Rate Characterisation

Gian Marco Melito1, Alireza Jafarinia2, Thomas Hochrainer2, Katrin Ellermann1

1University of Technology Graz, Institute of Mechanics
Kopernikusgasse 24/IV, Graz, Austria 8010
gmelito@tugraz.at; ellermann@tugraz.at
2University of Technology Graz, Institute of Strength of Materials
Kopernikusgasse 24/I, Graz, Austria 8010
alireza.jafarinia@tugraz.at; hochrainer@tugraz.at

Abstract - Aortic dissection is a severe cardiovascular disease caused by the occurrence of a tear in the aortic wall. As a result, the blood penetrates the wall and makes a new blood channel called the false lumen. The haemodynamic conditions in the false lumen may contribute to the formation of thrombi, which influence the patient's diagnosis and outcomes. In this study, the focus is on a haemodynamic-based model of thrombus formation. Since the model construction entails uncertainties in the model parameters, a variance-based sensitivity analysis is performed. Thrombus formation at a backward-facing step is considered as a benchmark for the numerical simulations and sensitivity analysis. This geometry is capable of representing the main contributions of the model in thrombus formation. The study aims at improving the understanding of the model's structure and at preparing model simplifications to enable efficient patient-specific simulations in the future. A polynomial chaos expansion is employed as a surrogate model, from which the quantitative sensitivity indices are derived. In this study, nine model parameters are selected, whose proper values are not well known. The model responses taken into account are the maximum volume fraction of thrombus, its time development, and the thrombus growth rate. The results show that the model lends itself to model reduction since some of the model parameters show little to no influence on the model's outputs. A threshold value related to the concentration of bounded platelets and the bounded platelets reaction rate are identified as the key input parameters dominating the thrombus model predictions in the current geometry. Furthermore, the introduced thrombus characteristic growth time is driven by both the aforementioned variables.

Keywords: Aortic Dissection, Thrombus Formation, Global Sensitivity Analysis, Backwards-Facing Step.

© Copyright 2020 Authors This is an Open Access article published under the Creative Commons Attribution License terms. Unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium are permitted, provided the original work is properly cited.

Date Received: 2020-10-20
Date Accepted: 2020-11-10
Date Published: 2020-12-09

1. Introduction

Aortic dissection (AD) is a disease that develops a second volume, called false lumen (FL), in the aorta. AD is classified as type A when it initiates in the ascending thoracic aorta, type B when the initial tear in the aortic wall is in the descending thoracic aorta (Stanford Classification System). Type B aortic dissection (TBAD) is a severe disease associated with high mortality, which may also lead to complications such as aortic aneurysm, rupture or malperfusion syndromes [1]. In the current study, the focus is on TBAD and the role of thrombosis in the false lumen.

The haemodynamic conditions in the FL, including flow disturbance, recirculations, and significant variability in the wall shear stress (WSS) presumably promote the formation and growth of thrombi [2]. In [3], it is shown that partial thrombosis is associated with a higher mortality rate, whereas complete thrombosis of the FL improves patients' prognosis [4], [5]. Up to now, it is not entirely clear what circumstances favour thrombosis following aortic dissection. Thrombus formation models may play a vital role in the analysis of haemodynamics in cardiovascular environments.

In [2] and [6], a haemodynamic-based model capable of predicting false lumen thrombosis in TBAD is developed. However, because the model is mostly phenomenological, the parameters of the model may not be determined from chemical or biological characteristics of the blood. Instead, the parameters will usually be obtained from inverse modelling, i.e. fitting to measured data. However, suitable time-resolved data of thrombus-formation is very sparse, which is why it is of vital importance to narrow down the number of model parameters. A global sensitivity analysis is suggested to understand the influence of the parameters [7].

The model performs well in predicting the location of thrombus formation; however, it is unable to reproduce the growth rate as observed in in-vivo and in-vitro studies. More insight into the model parameters and their role in thrombus growth is needed to bridge the gap between numerical simulations and real-life studies. This paper identifies the most critical parameters for the thrombus growth model, and further analysis of the thrombus characteristic growth time indicates the parameters that could accelerate or inhibit the process of thrombus formation.

The paper is structured as follows: the thrombus formation model is exposed in Section 2, the theory of sensitivity analysis is explained in Section 3, while its application to the computational model is in Section 3.2. Results of the analysis and the conclusions are exposed in Sections 4 and 5, respectively.

2. Thrombus Formation and Growth

In this study, the thrombus formation model developed in [2] is used. It is a haemodynamic-based model in which the thrombus forms and grows mainly in areas where low shear stress and high residence time are measured. The model consists of the following equations, which are coupled with Navier-Stokes equations. The residence time  is a field quantity, which obeys the following evolution law,


where  denotes the velocity vector, and  is a diffusion coefficient. High  marks areas where platelets spend more time [2]. The transport equation for the concentration  of resting or activated platelets (RP or AP, resp.) is


Here,  denotes the diffusion coefficient of platelets, which is the same for resting and activated platelets. Furthermore,  denote reaction terms for the conversion of resting to activated platelets [2].

The so-called coagulant concentration  accounts for the lumped effect of all underlying biochemical reactions in the coagulation cascade [2]. In low shear rate areas, there is a production of coagulant at the wall based on the conditions specified on the boundary, compare Eq. (5). This modified boundary condition for the flux of coagulant is taken from [6] for the backwards-facing step. The diffusion-reaction equation for the coagulant is


where  is the coagulant kinetic constant,   is the shear rate. Furthermore,


where the subscript  denotes the threshold values, and


The effective coagulant diffusivity  is proportional to the coagulant diffusivity ,


Finally, the rate of production of bounded platelets concentration  is given by




Here,  denotes the bounded platelets reaction rate and  is the activated platelets concentration. The Navier-Stokes equation is modified to incorporate the thrombus growth [2]


where  denotes the blood density,  the pressure,  is the extra stress tensor, and


The quantity  indicates local thrombosis as a function of the bounded-platelets concentration  and its threshold . Furthermore,  is a coefficient with a sufficiently high value to stop the flow where the thrombus is formed [2]. In summary, the model controls the formation of thrombus based on shear stress, residence time, the concentration of coagulant and platelets.

3. Numerical Simulations

OpenFOAM software is used for solving the blood flow and thrombus formation equations. The blockMesh utility in OpenFOAM is used for generating a structured hexahedral mesh. Blood is modelled as a Newtonian fluid. The geometry is characterised by a step depth () of 2.5 mm, inlet height () of 7.5 mm and a total length () of 120 mm.

3. 1. Initial and Boundary Conditions

For the inlet boundary condition of the velocity, a uniform velocity profile resulting in Reynolds number of 490 was imposed, with the no-slip condition for the walls. The pressure gradient is equal to zero on all the boundaries except the outlet, which is considered having a fixed value of zero.

As discussed in sections 2, there are five equations to be solved for the thrombus formation model. For solving residence time  equation (Eq. 1), which is initially zero, the inlet value of  is fixed to zero, and the normal gradient on all the other boundaries is set to zero.

Initial values of resting platelets RP and activated platelets AP in the blood are taken from [2]. The inlet values of RP and AP (Eq. 2) are fixed to their initial values. Zero normal gradients of AP and RP is imposed on all the other boundaries. For the coagulant equation (Eq. 3), the Neumann boundary condition discussed in section 2 is implemented for the walls, while a zero fixed value at the inlet and a zero normal gradient at the outlet are applied. Bounded platelets equation (Eq. 7) is solved with zero initial concentration of bounded platelets.

3. 2. Backward-facing step benchmark

The thrombus formation simulation starts at 12 seconds from the steady-state flow solution. A Reynolds number of 490 is chosen to be consistent with in-vitro results in [8] and numerical simulations in [9]. To test the performance of numerical simulations, the reattachment length  at the back of the step for four Reynolds numbers is compared to the numerical results of [10]. For this comparison, the expansion ratio of  is adopted [10]. The Reynolds number  is computed as


where  is inlet velocity,  is the hydraulic diameter and equal to  [10],  is the blood density, and blood viscosity  [9].

Figure 1 shows that the present results are in good agreement with the benchmark solutions [10]. Mesh and time-step sensitivity analysis resulted in 20,000 elements and a time-step of 0.005s.

Figure 1. Normalised reattachment length with respect to step height versus Reynolds numbers

3. 3. Thrombus formation model

 In Figure 2, the recirculation area behind the step is highlighted by the streamlines superposed on a density plot of the magnitude of the fluid velocity. The model predicts thrombus formation in the recirculation area behind the step which qualitatively matches with in-vitro results in [8] and numerical simulations in [9], see Figure 3.

Figure 2. Streamlines and magnitude of velocity indicating recirculation at the back of the step.
Figure 3. Evolution of thrombus in time at the back of the step. The thrombus has reached 16 mm length in 50 s.

4. Sensitivity analysis

Consider a quantity of interest  of computational model  function of an input random vector  of dimension , i.e. . One of the most widely used technique in global sensitivity analysis is the variance-based method, which quantifies the connection between the variance of the model output , given the variability of its inputs . The sensitivity analysis may be employed for model reduction, in that the non-influential variables of a computational model may be considered constants. Furthermore, sensitivity analysis enables input factor prioritisation, by ranking the parameters, to which the outcome is most sensitive.

A random variable  is considered to be influential (non-influential) to the model  with output  if the conditional variance  is larger (smaller) than the variance of the quantity of interest , where  and  represent the variance and the mean operators. The first-order sensitivity index (or first-Sobol index) is defined as [11]


The first-Sobol index represents the contribution of the random variable , for , to the change of the model output .

The total-order sensitivity index (or total-Sobol index) is defined as


The total-Sobol index evaluates the total effect of an input parameter, by accounting for the conditional variance of the output, conditioning to all factors except the given one, .

The first-Sobol index identifies the level of influence of a single parameter on the output in the analysis, but it does not give information regarding the interaction of the parameter with other variables of the input space. It may be used for factor prioritisation, where a ranking of the parameters is produced. The rank indicates the level of influence on the model variation, and therefore it highlights the input uncertainty that needs to be removed. The total-order sensitivity index specifies the influence of the input parameter on the model output and the level of interaction with other input parameters. The total-order index is used for factor fixing. Here, the lower values are considered to decide which variable has no- or low-effect on the output. Such variables can be successively considered as model's constant.

4. 1. Polynomial Chaos Expansion

The Sobol indices are assessed from a polynomial chaos expansion (PCE) of the computational model [12].

PCE consists of the sum of orthogonal, multivariate polynomials  of increasing order up to some maximal polynomial order  [13]. The polynomials are multiplied by expansion coefficients , which can be estimated with different methods. The expansion is written as


where  is a set of multi-indices α which refer to the degree of each polynomial with respect to each input parameter. The multivariate polynomials  are defined as the product of univariate polynomials of order , i.e. . The univariate polynomials are generated following the Askey scheme [14] for the composition of polynomials.

Finally, from the PCE, it is possible to estimate the two sensitivity indices as the ratio between the PCE coefficients [14]. Since the case study is dynamic, the variance of the output evolves in time. A pointwise-in-time evaluation of sensitivity indices turns out to be inaccurate in describing such evolution. Therefore, an analysis that is aware of the history of the output variability is needed. The implementation of time-dependent indices, known as generalised Sobol indices [15] reads



4. 2. Application to the thrombus formation model

The input parameters that are considered to rep­re­sent uncertainty are listed in Table 1. To adequately cover and understand the sensitivity of thrombus formation on the selected parameters, the volume fraction of thrombus, the thrombus growth rate, and a characteristic growth time    are considered as the quantities of interest. The volume fraction of thrombus expressed as a percentage is defined as


where  is the domain volume and the thrombus growth rate ( as


It seems promising to introduce an indicator that describes the development of the thrombus in time. This indicator could improve model fitting to experimental data, the introduction of a time scale in thrombus growth, or both. A characteristic growth time  is therefore introduced, which is defined by the maximum peak of the thrombus growth rate, thus the time after which the thrombus growth rate decreases significantly. At  the thrombus formation is considered almost complete, and the thrombus is said to be developed, i.e. its volume will no longer change significantly in time. An example of   identification is illustra­ted in Figure 4, where the growth rate of one typical simulation is plotted over the simulation time. The characteristic growth time  is unique for each simulation. However, not all simulations reached a growth rate peak in the simulation time, preventing the assignment of the characteristic growth time. Such simulations were excluded from the sensitivity analysis.

The developed thrombus and its characteristic growth time are directly connected. Acceleration or deceleration of the thrombus formation results in a variation of  in the model. For an in-depth understanding of the growth characteristics, this relationship should be analysed in detail.

Each model input factor is treated as a uniformly distributed random variable on a given interval, since their actual values, and distributions are not known, Table 1. The sample is produced with latin hypercube sampling techniques with size < equal to 450. The number of simulations is bounded by the high computational cost of the model and fulfils the requirements for the construction of the PCE. The latter is solved with the regression LARS method through the Matlab toolbox UQlab [16], where the degree of the polynomial is set to 3.

Figure 4. Example of thrombus growth rate in time. A black circle indicates the characteristic growth time

5. Results

The sensitivity indices  and  for the maximum volume fraction of thrombus are listed in Table 2. By looking at the first column, one observes that the first-order sensitivity indices do not sum up to one, which occurs in the presence of non-additive model behaviour. Circa 90% of the output variance can be attributed to , , and . The bounded platelets threshold  accounts alone, i.e. without considering interactions, for about 64% of the variation of the volume fraction of thrombus. By subtracting the first-order from the total-order indices of Table 2, the interaction effect is estimated.

Table 1. Input parameters of the thrombus model and their probabilistic distribution used for the sensitivity analysis. All input parameters follow a uniform probability distribution on the indicated interval.

Since the thrombus develops in time, it is essential to understand how the variation of its development evolves in time. The results show several trends (Figures 5 and 6). Increasing variability in time is visible, especially towards the end of the simulation time. In Figure 5, at 50 s of simulation time, the distribution of the recorded maximum volume fraction of thrombus varies from the absence of thrombus to a thrombus coverage of circa 30% of the volume domain. Such variability is critical for a model in which the compu­tation of the thrombus volume is an important goal.

The results of the generalised total-Sobol indices for the volume fraction of thrombus and the thrombus growth rate are shown in Figure 7. The sensitivity analysis results do not differ for the two quantities of interest (Eq.17 and 18); therefore, only one plot is shown. Furthermore, the first-Sobol index does not display a trend that differs from the total-Sobol index, suggesting a low degree of interactions between the input random variables [17]. In Figure 7, the sensitivity analysis in time of volume fraction of thrombus and thrombus growth rate shows the significant influence of the bounded platelets concentration threshold . Besides this, only the bounded platelets reaction rate  shows a comparably strong effect on the volume fraction of thrombus.

The other input random variables mostly have a small or negligible effect on the output and might be considered as model constants. The only exception is the significant role of the residence time threshold  in the early stage of thrombus initiation.

However, this parameter is mostly responsible for sparking off the formation of the thrombus, while its effect on the final thrombus size is also negligible. The influence of the coagulant diffusivity  shows a small peak right after the first formation of the thrombus, but remains low throughout the simulation time.

Table 2: Sobol indices of the input random variables on the maximum volume fraction of thrombosis.

As may be read from Eq. 7 and Eq. 8, bounded platelets are generated from activated platelets in areas with low shear rate, high residence time and high concentration of coagulant. The bounded platelets can stop the flow if their concentration is sufficiently higher than the threshold value, . Any variation of the bounded platelets concentration threshold will significantly change the process of thrombus formation, i.e. it essentially controls where and how fast the thrombus can form. Moreover, the reaction rate  determines how fast the concentration of bounded platelets may reach the threshold value .

The interconnected roles of the two parameters  and  on thrombus formation advocate the idea that there might be a correlation between these parameters and a characteristic time of the thrombus formation process. To verify if the characteristic growth time  is the right candidate for characterising the thrombus growth rate, a sensitivity analysis is also performed for this quantity of interest.

Figure 5. Volume fraction of thrombus. The continuous line shows the mean value; the dashed line represents the 2 standard deviations of the data.
Figure 6. Thrombus growth rate in time. The central continuous black line identifies the median value; the grey area represents the interquartile range; the dotted lines are the maximum and minimum data points.

The sensitivity analysis results for the characteristic growth time  of the thrombus are shown in Figure 8. Here, the sensitivity indices are shown in a bar plot, where the first- and total-Sobol indices are shown side-by-side to highlight the presence of potential interactions, given by their difference in value. The main parameters affecting the shift in  are again the bounded platelets concentration threshold  and the bounded platelets reaction rate .

Figure 7. Generalised total-Sobol index for the volume fraction of thrombus
Figure 8. Sensitivity analysis results for the characteristic growth time of thrombus .

From the results of the sensitivity analysis for  (Figure 8), the characteristic growth time is a function of  and . Because a high threshold  delays thrombus growth, while a high reaction rate  has an accelerating effect, the ratio between them is introduced as a characteristic growth rate  of the model,


with the dimension of a cubic meter per second (). Its relationship to the characteristic growth time  is shown in Figure 9. Here, the data are produced with the computation of the metamodel for the characteristic growth time considering all input parameters, except for < and , as constants. The data was fit with non-linear regression. A low value of the characteristic growth rate   leads to high values of , that can be interpreted as a delayed thrombus growth. Such behaviour is a consequence of a low value of bounded platelets reaction rate , and a high bounded platelets concentration threshold . In the case of high , the required number of bounded platelets to form a thrombus has to be higher, and therefore its growth is reduced.

The data have been fitted by


where  is the model convection time given by the ratio of inlet velocity magnitude  and inlet height ,  is the volumetric flow rate, where the area  is the product of inlet height  and geometry depth  m. The constants  and  are computed by non-linear regression analysis. Their values, together with their 95% confidence intervals, are: , and . The coefficient of determination .

Such a formulation of the characteristic growth time of the thrombus appears as a promising tool for the modelling phase. By varying the characteristic growth rate of the problem, it is possible to accelerate or inhibit the thrombus formation.

Figure 9. Variation of characteristic growth time of thrombus  normalised by convection time  as a function of the characteristic growth rate  normalised by volumetric flow rate

6. Conclusions

The thrombus formation model presents a high amount of variation due to the intrinsic uncertainty of the input parameters, which are usually collected from different literature sources. The input variation is modelled with uniform probability distributions for nine model input random variables, and a sensitivity analysis is performed through the construction of a polynomial chaos expansion metamodel. To better grasp the model variation for the scope of the study, the quantities of interest are considered to be the volume fraction of thrombus, the thrombus growth rate, and the time instant at which the growth rate peak is recorded, namely the characteristic growth time.

Input parameters such as the bounded platelets reaction rate  and the bounded platelets concentration threshold of activated platelets , show high sensitivity indices, and therefore their proper determination requires further investigation. In general, the input parameters that include the platelet's mechanics control most of the process, except for the bounded platelets threshold at the boundary . All the other input random variables, including the parameters relating to the coagulant, have little to no influence on the considered outputs, and therefore they could be switched to fixed values without altering the model response.

The results of the sensitivity analysis for the model outputs show that the bounded platelets threshold  exerts the most substantial influence. The reaction rate of bounded platelets  plays the second-largest role in the thrombus growth rate and the volume fraction of thrombus.

Finally, the introduced characteristic growth rate  appears to be a promising indicator for the speed of thrombus formation. This characteristic rate is supposed to be beneficial for fitting model results to experimental results, in-turn improving the haemodynamic-based model in predicting thrombus formation on a proper time scale.


This work is supported by the Graz University of Technology through the LEAD Project "Mechanics, Modeling, and Simulation of Aortic Dissection".


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