Viscoelastic properties of soft tissues and hydropolymers depend on the strength of molecular bonding forces connecting the polymer matrix and surrounding fluids. The basis for diagnostic imaging is that disease processes alter molecular-scale bonding in ways that vary the measurable stiffness and viscosity of the tissues. This paper reviews linear viscoelastic theory as applied to gelatin hydrogels for the purpose of formulating approaches to molecular-scale interpretation of elasticity imaging in soft biological tissues. Comparing measurements acquired under different geometries, we investigate the limitations of viscoelastic parameters acquired under various imaging conditions. Quasi-static (step-and-hold and low-frequency harmonic) stimuli applied to gels during creep and stress relaxation experiments in confined and unconfined geometries reveal continuous, bimodal distributions of respondance times. Within the linear range of responses, gelatin will behave more like a solid or fluid depending on the stimulus magnitude. Gelatin can be described statistically from a few parameters of low-order rheological models that form the basis of viscoelastic imaging. Unbiased estimates of imaging parameters are obtained only if creep data are acquired for greater than twice the highest retardance time constant and any steady-state viscous response has been eliminated. Elastic strain and retardance time images are found to provide the best combination of contrast and signal strength in gelatin. Retardance times indicate average behavior of fast (110s) fluid flows and slow (50400s) matrix restructuring in response to the mechanical stimulus. Insofar as gelatin mimics other polymers, such as soft biological tissues, elasticity imaging can provide unique insights into complex structural and biochemical features of connectives tissues affected by disease.

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