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The Heart and the Circulatory System

Heart Anatomy

From this point forward, all discussions about the heart and circulation refer to human circulation. The human heart is a muscular pump. While most of the hollow organs of the body do have muscular layers, the heart is almost entirely muscle. Unlike most of the other hollow organs, whose muscle layers are composed of smooth muscle, the heart is composed of cardiac muscle. All muscle types function by contraction, which causes the muscle cells to shorten. Skeletal muscle cells, which make up most of the mass of the body, are voluntary and contract when the brain sends signals telling them to react. The smooth muscle surrounding the other hollow organs is involuntary, meaning it does not need to be told to contract.

Cardiac Muscle
Contributed by Richard J. Harris
Image courtesy of BIODIDAC

Cardiac muscle is also involuntary. So functionally, cardiac muscle and smooth muscle are similar. Anatomically though, cardiac muscle more closely resembles skeletal muscle. Both skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle are striated. Under medium to high power magnification through the microscope, you can see small stripes running crosswise in both types. Smooth muscle is nonstriated. Cardiac muscle could almost be said to be a hybrid between skeletal and smooth muscle.

Cardiac muscle does have several unique features. Present in cardiac muscle are intercalated discs, which are connections between two adjacent cardiac cells. Intercalated discs help multiple cardiac muscle cells contract rapidly as a unit. This is important for the heart to function properly. Cardiac muscle also can contract more powerfully when it is stretched slightly. When the ventricles are filled, they are stretched beyond their normal resting capacity. The result is a more powerful contraction, ensuring that the maximum amount of blood can be forced from the ventricles and into the arteries with each stroke. This is most noticeable during exercise, when the heart beats rapidly.

Heart Chambers

Image courtesy of MedValet

There are four chambers in the heart - two atria and two ventricles. The atria (one is called an atrium) are responsible for receiving blood from the veins leading to the heart. When they contract, they pump blood into the ventricles. However, the atria do not really have to work that hard. Most of the blood in the atria will flow into the ventricles even if the atria fail to contract. It is the ventricles that are the real workhorses, for they must force the blood away from the heart with sufficient power to push the blood all the way back to the heart (this is where the property of contracting with more force when stretched comes into play). The muscle in the walls of the ventricles is much thicker than the atria. The walls of the heart are really several spirally wrapped muscle layers. This spiral arrangement results in the blood being wrung from the ventricles during contraction. Between the atria and the ventricles are valves, overlapping layers of tissue that allow blood to flow only in one direction. Valves are also present between the ventricles and the vessels leading from it.

Cardiac Conduction

Though the brain can cause the heart to speed up or slow drain, it does not control the regular beating of the heart. As noted earlier, the heart is composed of involuntary muscle. The muscle fibers of the heart are also self-excitatory. This means they can initiate contraction themselves without receiving signals from the brain. This has been demonstrated many times in high school classes of the past by removing the heart of a frog or turtle, and then stimulating it to contract. The heart continues to beat with no further outside stimulus, sometimes for hours if bathed in the proper solution. In addition, cardiac muscle fibers also contract for a longer period of time than do skeletal muscles. This longer period of contraction gives the blood time to flow out of the heart chambers.

The heart has two areas that initiate impulses, the SA or sinoatrial node, and the AV or atrioventricular node. The heart also has special muscle fibers called Purkinje fibers that conduct impulses five times more rapidly than surrounding cells. The Purkinje fibers form a pathway for conduction of the impulse that ensures that the heart muscle cells contract in the most efficient pattern. The SA node is located in the wall of the right atrium, near the junction of the atrium and the superior vena cava. This special region of cardiac muscle contracts on its own about 72 times per minute. In contrast, the muscle in the rest of the atrium contracts on its own only 40 or so times per minute. The muscle in the ventricles contracts on its own only 20 or so times per minute. Since the cells in the SA node contract the most times per minute, and because cardiac muscle cells are connected to each other by intercalated discs, the SA node is the pacemaker of the heart. When the SA node initiates a contraction, Purkinje fibers rapidly conduct the impulse to another site near the bottom of the right atrium and near the center of the heart. This region is the AV node, and slows the impulse briefly. The impulse then travels to a large bundle of Purkinje fibers called the Bundle of His, where they move quickly to the septum that divides the two ventricles. Here, the Purkinje fibers run in two pathways toward the posterior apex of the heart. At the apex, the paths turn in opposite directions, one running to the right ventricle, and one running to the left. The result is that while the atria are contracting, the impulse is carried quickly to the ventricles. With the AV node holding up the impulse just enough to let the atria finish their contraction before the ventricles begin to contract, blood can fill the ventricles. And, since the Purkinje fibers have carried the impulse to the apex of the ventricles first, the contraction proceeds from the bottom of the ventricles to the top where the blood leaves the ventricles through the pulmonary arteries and the aorta.

Heart Sounds

The contraction of the heart and its anatomy cause the distinctive sounds heard when listening to the heart with a stethoscope. The "lub-dub" sound is the sound of the valves in the heart closing. When the atria end their contraction and the ventricles begin to contract, the blood is forced back against the valves between the atria and the ventricles, causing the valves to close. This is the "lub" sound, and signals the beginning of ventricular contraction , known as systole. The "dub" is the sound of the valves closing between the ventricles and their arteries, and signals the beginning of ventricular relaxation, known as diastole. A physician listening carefully to the heart can detect if the valves are closing completely or not. Instead of a distinctive valve sound, the physician may hear a swishing sound if they are letting blood flow backward. When the swishing is heard tells the physician where the leaky valve is located.

Next page > The Heart and the Circulatory System > William Harvey > Types of Circulatory Systems > Anatomy of the Heart > The Pulmonary and Systemic Circuits > The Blood Vessels > Circulatory Problems > Modern Cardiovascular Medicine



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