Blood Vessels

Differences in Blood Vessels

The walls of arteries and veins have conducting, distributing, and resistance layers, differing in elasticity, thickness of walls, permeability, and pressure.
Veins and arteries share a wall construction consisting of three layers, or tunics. The tunica externa (tunica adventitia) is the first or outermost layer of arterial and venous walls. Formed largely of a protein called collagen, it anchors and stabilizes the vessel. It also holds smaller blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and nerves in place, preventing blood vessels from tearing during body movement. The tunica media is the middle layer and typically the thickest section of arterial and venous walls. It consists of smooth muscle, which facilitates the vessel's ability to vasodilate and vasoconstrict. The tunica media also contains elastin, a protein that helps structures return to their normal shape after stretching. The third or innermost layer is the tunica intima, or tunica interna. It consists of an epithelial layer, which is thin tissue that lines the region of the vessel exposed to passing blood. The layer secretes vasoconstrictors, which narrow blood vessels, and vasodilators, which widen blood vessels, as well as provides a semipermeable barrier to solutes in blood. Vessel layers surround the vessel lumen, which is a hollow space through which blood flows.

The Structure of Artery and Vein Walls

Walls of veins and arteries consist of three layers, or tunics. Differences between the composition of arterial and venous tunics reflect differences in the vessels' functions.
The three types of blood vessels differ considerably in elasticity, wall thickness, and permeability. These differences help explain the unique function for each blood vessel type. For example, consider the arteries. Vessel blood pressure reaches its highest levels in the arteries. To accommodate this pressure, arteries are constructed with relatively thick walls. The tunica media of a conducting artery includes many layers of elastic tissue that provide flexibility for changing diameter. A distributing artery's thick tunica media includes 25–40 layers of smooth muscle cells. Arteries retain a round shape in cross section.

Because veins transport blood far from the heart, they maintain much lower blood pressures than arteries. Their thin walls reflect this difference. Veins have much less elastic tissue and muscle tissue than arteries and collapse if empty. The thin walls enhance veins' ability to expand; they can carry higher volumes of blood than arteries.

Blood pressure drops by the time blood reaches the capillaries. This is because there is such a greater volume of capillaries compared to arteries. The large amount of surface area the capillaries cover allows the blood a lot of room to dissipate, thereby reducing the pressure. Capillary composition—an endothelium and underlying membrane—is far simpler than the three-layer arrangement of the other vessels. Capillaries have very thin walls, as thin as 0.2–0.4 μm. They are also abundant and arranged very close together. Unlike arteries and veins, capillaries are specialized for permeability. Combined with the simple wall construction, permeability allows exchange of materials between blood and interstitial fluid, which surrounds cells found in tissues within the body. Continuous capillaries, the type found in most tissues, contain narrow intercellular clefts, or openings, between endothelial cells. These allow passage of small solutes such as glucose. Fenestrated capillaries are important in organs carrying out filtration and absorption. The endothelial cells of fenestrated capillaries include many holes, or fenestrations, that allow small molecules to pass while containing larger ones.

Vasodilation and Vasoconstriction

Blood vessels can contract or relax to increase or decrease their diameter through the action of precapillary sphincters, which in turn affects the pressure within the capillary bed and can redirect blood to other locations.

The smooth muscle in the tunica media (middle layer) of blood vessel walls enables vessels to contract or relax, decreasing or increasing their diameter. Vasoconstriction, the decrease in vessel diameter produced by smooth muscle contraction, decreases blood flow. Vasoconstriction increases blood pressure upstream of the contraction and decreases the blood pressure downstream of it. Vasodilation refers to the increase in vessel diameter resulting from smooth muscle relaxation. This process increases blood flow and decreases blood pressure by widening the blood vessels and allowing more blood to flow through.

Blood flow across capillary beds is adjusted by precapillary sphincters. A precapillary sphincter is a smooth muscular tube found at the opening of each capillary that controls whether the capillary is open or closed to arriving blood. Blood from arteries flows through a capillary bed in a thoroughfare channel, an arteriole connected directly to a postcapillary venule. The thoroughfare channel supplies the 10–100 capillaries that typically form a capillary bed. Blood in the thoroughfare channel perfuses (flows across) capillaries when the precapillary sphincters are open and bypasses the bed when the precapillary sphincters are closed. Blood pressure is already low by the time blood reaches capillaries, and it drops much further when blood is blocked by the vasoconstriction of precapillary sphincters.

Vasodilation and Vasoconstriction in Capillaries

Precapillary sphincters open and close to control whether or not blood flows into capillary beds. These sphincters allow redirection of blood flow from one body location to another.
At any point in time, approximately 75% of the body's capillaries are closed, as there is insufficient blood in the body to fill all vessels simultaneously. The precapillary sphincters make it possible for vessels to supply blood for the exchange of materials directly to tissues when and where it is needed.

Capillary Exchange

Gases, nutrients, and waste products are exchanged by diffusion, filtration, transcytosis, and reabsorption.

Redirection of blood at capillaries allows the body to move blood where it is needed, from one organ to another. Arterial vasoconstriction decreases blood flow to capillaries and increases blood pressure along that route. Blood instead takes a path with less resistance, shifting to where vessels are more dilated and blood pressure is lower. For example, in a person relaxing after a meal, vasoconstriction halts most blood flow to leg capillaries. Blood pressure above the legs then rises, and higher resistance causes blood to flow in an arterial path with less resistance. Blood redirects to the small intestine, where it enables digestion. In contrast, arteries dilate in a person running on a treadmill. Blood is directed away from kidneys and digestive organs to the heart, lungs, and skeletal muscles.

At capillary beds, nutrients and gases are exchanged directly between interstitial fluid and blood by four processes: diffusion, transcytosis, filtration, and reabsorption. Diffusion is the most important of these, enabling materials to move across the plasma membrane from areas of higher concentration to areas of lower concentration. Oxygen and glucose diffuse from blood through interstitial fluid, found between cells in the body, to the cells of tissues. Carbon dioxide and other wastes diffuse from tissues to blood. Through transcytosis, where molecules are transported across the interior of a cell, endothelial cells move fluids across the plasma membrane. The plasma membrane uses pinocytosis, pinching off vesicles containing fluid droplets. Once transported across the plasma membrane, fluid is released by exocytosis, the vesicles expelling their contents. Though not common, transcytosis moves albumin, fatty acids, and hormones such as insulin.

Filtration and reabsorption together exchange fluids at capillaries through a balance of hydrostatic pressure and osmosis. Hydrostatic pressure is the pressure exerted by a fluid due to gravity, in blood vessels caused by the weight of blood. Forces from hydrostatic pressure drive the flow of blood from the capillaries to the body's tissues. Net hydrostatic pressure is the difference between blood pressure and interstitial pressure, which is the pressure exerted by interstitial fluids, those fluids in tissue spaces. Because this type of pressure opposes the forces exerted on capillaries by hydrostatic pressure, it causes the hydrostatic pressure in the interstitial fluid to rise. This rise in interstitial pressure helps move fluid from the capillaries to the body's tissues. In other words, at a capillary's arterial end, hydrostatic pressure is higher inside than outside, which filters fluid out. Oncotic pressure, or colloid osmotic pressure, is the difference between blood's high colloid osmotic pressure (COP), caused by proteins, and tissue COP. It opposes hydrostatic pressure, reabsorbing water into capillaries through osmosis. This action, which occurs at the venous end of capillaries, where hydrostatic pressure is lower, reduces capillary water loss. Edema is the accumulation of tissue fluid that occurs when the capillary filtration and reabsorption balance is disrupted. It causes swelling in the fingers, ankles, face, or abdomen. Edema typically results from accelerated capillary filtration, reduced capillary reabsorption, or blocked lymphatic drainage.

Fluid Exchange at Capillaries through Filtration and Reabsorption

The forces of hydrostatic pressure and osmosis drive the processes of filtration and reabsorption, which exchange fluids containing substances such as gases and nutrients between capillaries and tissues.