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Tunica intima

The tunica intima    (also called the tunica interna) is composed of epithelial and connective tissue layers. Lining the tunica intima is the specialized simple squamous epithelium called the endothelium, which is continuous throughout the entire vascular system, including the lining of the chambers of the heart. Damage to this endothelial lining and exposure of blood to the collagenous fibers beneath is one of the primary causes of clot formation. Until recently, the endothelium was viewed simply as the boundary between the blood in the lumen and the walls of the vessels. Recent studies, however, have shown that it is physiologically critical to such activities as helping to regulate capillary exchange and altering blood flow. The endothelium releases local chemicals called endothelins that can constrict the smooth muscle within the walls of the vessel to increase blood pressure. Uncompensated overproduction of endothelins may contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease.

Next to the endothelium is the basement membrane, or basal lamina, that effectively binds the endothelium to the connective tissue. The basement membrane provides strength while maintaining flexibility, and it is permeable, allowing materials to pass through it. The thin outer layer of the tunica intima contains a small amount of areolar connective tissue that consists primarily of elastic fibers to provide the vessel with additional flexibility; it also contains some collagenous fibers to provide additional strength.

In larger arteries, there is also a thick, distinct layer of elastic fibers known as the internal elastic membrane    (also called the internal elastic lamina) at the boundary with the tunica media. Like the other components of the tunica intima, the internal elastic membrane provides structure while allowing the vessel to stretch. It is permeated with small openings that allow exchange of materials between the tunics. The internal elastic membrane is not apparent in veins. In addition, many veins, particularly in the lower limbs, contain valves formed by sections of thickened endothelium that are reinforced with connective tissue, extending into the lumen.

Under the microscope, the lumen and the entire tunica intima of a vein will appear smooth, whereas those of an artery will normally appear wavy because of the partial constriction of the smooth muscle in the tunica media, the next layer of blood vessel walls.

Tunica media

The tunica media    is the substantial middle layer of the vessel wall (see [link] ). It is generally the thickest layer in arteries, and it is much thicker in arteries than it is in veins. The tunica media consists of layers of smooth muscle supported by connective tissue that is primarily made up of elastic fibers, most of which are arranged in circular sheets. Toward the outer portion of the tunic, there are also layers of longitudinal muscle. Contraction and relaxation of the circular muscles decrease and increase the diameter of the vessel lumen, respectively. Specifically in arteries, vasoconstriction    decreases blood flow as the smooth muscle in the walls of the tunica media contracts, making the lumen narrower and increasing blood pressure. Similarly, vasodilation    increases blood flow as the smooth muscle relaxes, allowing the lumen to widen and blood pressure to drop. Both vasoconstriction and vasodilation are regulated in part by small vascular nerves, known as nervi vasorum    , or “nerves of the vessel,” that run within the walls of blood vessels. These are generally all sympathetic fibers, although some trigger vasodilation and others induce vasoconstriction, depending upon the nature of the neurotransmitter and receptors located on the target cell. Parasympathetic stimulation does trigger vasodilation as well as erection during sexual arousal in the external genitalia of both sexes. Nervous control over vessels tends to be more generalized than the specific targeting of individual blood vessels. Local controls, discussed later, account for this phenomenon. (Seek additional content for more information on these dynamic aspects of the autonomic nervous system.) Hormones and local chemicals also control blood vessels. Together, these neural and chemical mechanisms reduce or increase blood flow in response to changing body conditions, from exercise to hydration. Regulation of both blood flow and blood pressure is discussed in detail later in this chapter.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 04, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11496/1.8
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