The heart is a complex muscle that pumps blood through the three divisions of the circulatory system: the coronary (vessels that serve the heart), pulmonary (heart and lungs), and systemic (systems of the body), as shown in Figure 1. Coronary circulation intrinsic to the heart takes blood directly from the main artery (aorta) coming from the heart. For pulmonary and systemic circulation, the heart has to pump blood to the lungs or the rest of the body, respectively. In vertebrates, the lungs are relatively close to the heart in the thoracic cavity. The shorter distance to pump means that the muscle wall on the right side of the heart is not as thick as the left side which must have enough pressure to pump blood all the way to your big toe.
Which of the following statements about the circulatory system is false?
- Blood in the pulmonary vein is deoxygenated.
- Blood in the inferior vena cava is deoxygenated.
- Blood in the pulmonary artery is deoxygenated.
- Blood in the aorta is oxygenated.
Structure of the Heart
The heart muscle is asymmetrical due to the distance blood must travel in the pulmonary and systemic circuits. Since the right side of the heart sends blood to the pulmonary circuit, it is smaller than the left side which must send blood out to the whole body in the systemic circuit, as shown in Figure 2.
In humans, the heart is about the size of a clenched fist, and it is divided into four chambers: two atria and two ventricles. There is one atrium and one ventricle on the right side and one atrium and one ventricle on the left side. The atria are the chambers that receive blood, and the ventricles are the chambers that pump blood. The right atrium receives deoxygenated blood from the superior vena cava, which drains blood from the jugular vein that comes from the brain and from the veins that come from the arms, as well as from the inferior vena cava which drains blood from the veins that come from the lower organs and the legs.
In addition, the right atrium receives blood from the coronary sinus which drains deoxygenated blood from the heart itself. This deoxygenated blood then passes to the right ventricle through the atrioventricular valve or the tricuspid valve, a flap of connective tissue that opens in only one direction to prevent the backflow of blood. The valve separating the chambers on the left side of the heart valve is called the biscuspid or mitral valve. After it is filled, the right ventricle pumps the blood through the pulmonary arteries, by-passing the semilunar valve (or pulmonic valve) to the lungs for re-oxygenation.
After blood passes through the pulmonary arteries, the right semilunar valves close preventing the blood from flowing backwards into the right ventricle. The left atrium then receives the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs via the pulmonary veins. This blood passes through the bicuspid valve or mitral valve (the atrioventricular valve on the left side of the heart) to the left ventricle where the blood is pumped out through aorta, the major artery of the body, taking oxygenated blood to the organs and muscles of the body. Once blood is pumped out of the left ventricle and into the aorta, the aortic semilunar valve (or aortic valve) closes preventing blood from flowing backward into the left ventricle. This pattern of pumping is referred to as double circulation and is found in all mammals.
Which of the following statements about the heart is false?
- The mitral valve separates the left ventricle from the left atrium.
- Blood travels through the bicuspid valve to the left atrium.
- Both the aortic and the pulmonary valves are semilunar valves.
- The mitral valve is an atrioventricular valve.
The heart is composed of three layers; the epicardium, the myocardium, and the endocardium, illustrated in Figure 2. The inner wall of the heart has a lining called the endocardium. The myocardium consists of the heart muscle cells that make up the middle layer and the bulk of the heart wall. The outer layer of cells is called the epicardium, of which the second layer is a membranous layered structure called the pericardium that surrounds and protects the heart; it allows enough room for vigorous pumping but also keeps the heart in place to reduce friction between the heart and other structures.
The heart has its own blood vessels that supply the heart muscle with blood (Figure 3). The coronary arteries branch from the aorta and surround the outer surface of the heart like a crown. They diverge into capillaries where the heart muscle is supplied with oxygen before converging again into the coronary veins to take the deoxygenated blood back to the right atrium where the blood will be re-oxygenated through the pulmonary circuit. The heart muscle will die without a steady supply of blood. Atherosclerosis is the blockage of an artery by the buildup of fatty plaques. Because of the size (narrow) of the coronary arteries and their function in serving the heart itself, atherosclerosis can be deadly in these arteries. The slowdown of blood flow and subsequent oxygen deprivation that results from atherosclerosis causes severe pain, known as angina, and complete blockage of the arteries will cause myocardial infarction: the death of cardiac muscle tissue, commonly known as a heart attack.
The Cardiac Cycle
The main purpose of the heart is to pump blood through the body; it does so in a repeating sequence called the cardiac cycle. The cardiac cycle is the coordination of the filling and emptying of the heart of blood by electrical signals that cause the heart muscles to contract and relax. The human heart beats over 100,000 times per day. In each cardiac cycle, the heart contracts (systole), pushing out the blood and pumping it through the body; this is followed by a relaxation phase (diastole), where the heart fills with blood, as illustrated in Figure 4. The atria contract at the same time, forcing blood through the atrioventricular valves into the ventricles. Closing of the atrioventricular valves produces a monosyllabic “lup” sound. Following a brief delay, the ventricles contract at the same time forcing blood through the semilunar valves into the aorta and the artery transporting blood to the lungs (via the pulmonary artery). Closing of the semilunar valves produces a monosyllabic “dup” sound.
The pumping of the heart is a function of the cardiac muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, that make up the heart muscle. Cardiomyocytes, shown in Figure 5, are distinctive muscle cells that are striated like skeletal muscle but pump rhythmically and involuntarily like smooth muscle; they are connected by intercalated disks exclusive to cardiac muscle. They are self-stimulated for a period of time and isolated cardiomyocytes will beat if given the correct balance of nutrients and electrolytes.
The autonomous beating of cardiac muscle cells is regulated by the heart’s internal pacemaker that uses electrical signals to time the beating of the heart. The electrical signals and mechanical actions, illustrated in Figure 6, are intimately intertwined. The internal pacemaker starts at the sinoatrial (SA) node, which is located near the wall of the right atrium. Electrical charges spontaneously pulse from the SA node causing the two atria to contract in unison. The pulse reaches a second node, called the atrioventricular (AV) node, between the right atrium and right ventricle where it pauses for approximately 0.1 second before spreading to the walls of the ventricles. From the AV node, the electrical impulse enters the bundle of His, then to the left and right bundle branches extending through the interventricular septum. Finally, the Purkinje fibers conduct the impulse from the apex of the heart up the ventricular myocardium, and then the ventricles contract. This pause allows the atria to empty completely into the ventricles before the ventricles pump out the blood. The electrical impulses in the heart produce electrical currents that flow through the body and can be measured on the skin using electrodes. This information can be observed as an electrocardiogram (ECG)—a recording of the electrical impulses of the cardiac muscle.
In Summary: Mammalian Heart
The heart muscle pumps blood through three divisions of the circulatory system: coronary, pulmonary, and systemic. There is one atrium and one ventricle on the right side and one atrium and one ventricle on the left side. The pumping of the heart is a function of cardiomyocytes, distinctive muscle cells that are striated like skeletal muscle but pump rhythmically and involuntarily like smooth muscle. The internal pacemaker starts at the sinoatrial node, which is located near the wall of the right atrium. Electrical charges pulse from the SA node causing the two atria to contract in unison; then the pulse reaches the atrioventricular node between the right atrium and right ventricle. A pause in the electric signal allows the atria to empty completely into the ventricles before the ventricles pump out the blood.