The Pathogenic Etiology of Atherosclerosis: A Review.
Special Topics in Pathophysiology
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To understand the basis of this paper, the pathophysiology of atherosclerosis, it is vital to appreciate the basic physiology of the heart, circulatory system, and most importantly, the coronary arteries. This fundamental comprehension will lay the foundation to better understand the devastation caused to the coronary arteries by the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. This may also provide insight into prevention and treatment strategies to counteract the destructive mechanism of this disease.
The heart is a very small, vitally important organ composed of four muscular chambers: the right and left atria, and the right and left ventricles. The atria have relatively thin muscular walls, allowing them to be highly distensible ; whereas the ventricles are of greater muscular thickness, which is vital for pumping the blood to the pulmonary and systemic circuits. A normal healthy heart has two main functions: to pump blood to the pulmonary circuit where the blood becomes oxygenated and to pump the oxygen-rich blood to the systemic circuit. The heart is essentially a small, muscular pump that is responsible for propelling deoxygenated blood to the lungs, while correspondingly pumping nutrient rich, oxygenated blood to the body. Once the blood leaves the left ventricle, it enters the aorta and corresponding network of arteries that constitute the circulatory system.
Blood vessels are divided into four categories: arteries (take oxygenated blood away from the heart to the body), arterioles (branch out from the arteries leading into the capillaries), capillaries (smallest of blood vessels where gas and nutrient exchange occurs), and veins (carry deoxygenated blood from the body to the heart). Arteries and veins have different functions; however, they both are composed of three distinct layers: tunica intima, tunica media, and the tunica adventita . The tunica intima is the innermost layer of any given blood vessel; it includes the endothelial lining and a layer of connective tissue containing variable amounts of elastic fibers . The tunica media is the middle layer which contains concentric sheets of smooth muscle composed of elastin and collagen fibers . It is this smooth muscle that when stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system either constricts, decreasing the diameter of the lumen (vasoconstriction), or it relaxes, increasing the diameter of the vessel lumen (vasodilation) ; the role of these vasoactivators will be discussed later in this paper. Lastly, the tunica adventitia is the outer most layer, which is composed of collagen and elastin fibers. Often, this outer layer is blended into adjacent tissues allowing the anchoring and stabilization of some vessels .
As the heart is an organ continuously doing work, the cardiac muscle cells are in need of a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients.
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