Advanced circulatory system physiology

Your heart sits in the middle of your chest and pumps blood from about 4 weeks after conception until the day that you die. It never stops, and over your lifetime it will pump ~175 million liters of blood. To visualize that, imagine the amount of water that falls over Niagara falls in a few minutes. Remarkable! This little pump is the size of your clenched fist and in an adult can weigh about 300 grams. Watch these videos to learn more about how the heart works, blood flow in arteries and veins, blood pressure, and lymphatics.
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Circulatory system introduction

No organ quite symbolizes love like the heart. One reason may be that your heart helps you live, by moving ~5 liters (1.3 gallons) of blood through almost 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) of blood vessels every single minute! It has to do this all day, everyday, without ever taking a vacation! Now that is true love. Learn about how the heart works, how blood flows through the heart, where the blood goes after it leaves the heart, and what your heart is doing when it makes the sound “Lub Dub.”

Blood pressure

Using the stethoscope to check blood pressure is a technique that’s been used for >100 years! Blood pressure is one of the major vital signs frequently measured by health care workers, and it tells us a lot about our blood circulation. Learn what blood pressure is, how it relates to resistance in a tube, why it is necessary to get oxygen to your cells, and how it can change as you age. We’ll finally put it all together by relating pressure, flow, and resistance in one awesome equation!

Blood pressure control

The human body enjoys stability. For example, if your blood pressure changes, the body puts a couple of brilliant systems into motion in order to respond and bring your blood pressure back to normal. There are some quick responses using nerves and some slower responses using hormones. The system using hormones is sometimes called the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone-system (RAAS), which is the main system in the body for controlling blood pressure. When your blood pressure drops too low or gets too high, your kidneys, liver, and pituitary gland (part of your brain) talk to each other to solve the problem. They do this without you even noticing! Learn how the body knows when the blood pressure has changed, and how hormones like angiotensin 2, aldosterone, and ADH help return blood pressure to back to normal.

Fetal circulation

At one stage or another in development, every friend you know had gill slits and a tail. Pretty crazy thought, huh? Fetal development is incredible, and it’s important to understand exactly how it happens. The structure and function of the circulatory system is incredibly complex, and fetuses are no exception. Find out how the heart and circulatory system work in the fetus!

Blood vessels

Where does your blood go after it leaves the heart? Your body has a fantastic pipeline system that moves your blood around to drop off oxygen and food to those hungry cells, and removes cell waste. Learn how arteries carry blood away from the heart, how veins bring blood back to the heart, and about the different layers of cells that make up these blood vessels.

Arterial stiffness

Believe it or not, the arteries are elastic and when they recoil they actually push blood along when the heart is relaxing (diastole). This is known as the windkessel effect and is the same basic principle used by some water guns. Unfortunately, with all the work that the circulatory system has to do, our arteries can become rigid with age. When the arteries get stiff like lead pipes, the problem is quite different then when the arteries actually get clogged up, but just as important.

Heart muscle contraction

Your heart is made of a special type of muscle, found nowhere else in the body! This unique muscle is specialized to perform the repetitive task of pumping your blood throughout your body, from the day you’re born to the day you die. We’ll take an in-depth look of how the heart accomplishes this on a cellular level, and learn about the proteins actin and myosin that are the workhorses that tug and pull on one another to create every single muscle contraction. You’ll appreciate the fact that your heart beat is a fairly sophisticated process!

Heart depolarization

Your heart relies on the flow of electricity to maintain a steady, consistent beat - like an automatic pump that maintains a regular rate and rhythm throughout your life! There are specialized heart cells that allow positive current to travel quickly throughout the heart muscle. In these videos, we’ll check out the flow of this positive charge on a macroscopic and microscopic level.

Nerve regulation of the heart

Although your heart can beat independently, your nervous system is important as an external regulator. Your brain can tell your heart to speed up or slow down, depending on the scenario. For example, when you’re falling asleep, your nervous system will cause your heart to slow down, and 8 hours later when your phone alarm goes off, your nervous system will speed up your heartbeat! So even though your heart muscle beats by itself, the nerves can ramp up or down the speed. Check out the videos to learn more about how the nerves help to regulate the heart.

Preload and afterload

After using your jeans for a while, you’ll begin to notice small tears and rips developing in the fabric. Why doesn’t this happen to your heart as well? Well, your heart manages to stay healthy despite all of the “wall stress” that pulls on the heart walls. During different parts of the heart cycle (afterload vs. preload) the mechanics of “wall stress” change dramatically. Learn exactly what preload and afterload mean, and how we can use pressure-volume loops to estimate their values.

Pressure volume loops

The pressure volume loop is one of the classic figures that helps us to conceptualize and understand the mechanics of the left ventricle of the heart. In addition to a filling up with blood and squeezing out blood there is a (very short) period of time when the heart muscle is contracting and relaxing with no volume change! As the left ventricle moves around the PV loop with each lub dub you get a sense for the amazing amount of work it does as pressures and volumes go up and down, all day, every day. This is a fascinating area where physics and biology meet to produce something miraculous.

Changing the PV loop

Once you’ve learned about the PV loop, a natural question arises - Does it ever change shape? It turns out that there are precisely three things that can change the shape of the loop: 1. Preload, 2. Afterload, and 3. Contractility. That’s it! The tricky part comes when you try to change one and you realize that the body begins to change the other two as well as a natural consequence. In order to simplify, you’ll find that PV loops are sometimes even described as PV boxes. You’ll get to learn about PV loops, PV boxes, and even play around with them yourself in this tutorial!