Lesson

Layers of the Heart

Take a closer look at the heart, explore some of its interesting features and get to know the three layers that make up the heart.

Heart Valve Structure and Function

A transverse section through the heart slightly above the level of the atrioventricular septum reveals all four heart valves along the same plane (Figure). The valves ensure unidirectional blood flow through the heart. Between the right atrium and the right ventricle is the right atrioventricular valve, or tricuspid valve. It typically consists of three flaps, or leaflets, made of endocardium reinforced with additional connective tissue. The flaps are connected by chordae tendineae to the papillary muscles, which control the opening and closing of the valves.

Heart Valves

With the atria and major vessels removed, all four valves are clearly visible, although it is difficult to distinguish the three separate cusps of the tricuspid valve.

With the atria and major vessels removed, all four valves are clearly visible, although it is difficult to distinguish the three separate cusps of the tricuspid valve.

Emerging from the right ventricle at the base of the pulmonary trunk is the pulmonary semilunar valve, or the pulmonary valve; it is also known as the pulmonic valve or the right semilunar valve. The pulmonary valve is comprised of three small flaps of endothelium reinforced with connective tissue. When the ventricle relaxes, the pressure differential causes blood to flow back into the ventricle from the pulmonary trunk. This flow of blood fills the pocket-like flaps of the pulmonary valve, causing the valve to close and producing an audible sound. Unlike the atrioventricular valves, there are no papillary muscles or chordae tendineae associated with the pulmonary valve.

Located at the opening between the left atrium and left ventricle is the mitral valve, also called the bicuspid valve or the left atrioventricular valve. Structurally, this valve consists of two cusps, known as the anterior medial cusp and the posterior medial cusp, compared to the three cusps of the tricuspid valve. In a clinical setting, the valve is referred to as the mitral valve, rather than the bicuspid valve. The two cusps of the mitral valve are attached by chordae tendineae to two papillary muscles that project from the wall of the ventricle.

At the base of the aorta is the aortic semilunar valve, or the aortic valve, which prevents backflow from the aorta. It normally is composed of three flaps. When the ventricle relaxes and blood attempts to flow back into the ventricle from the aorta, blood will fill the cusps of the valve, causing it to close and producing an audible sound.

In Figure a, the two atrioventricular valves are open and the two semilunar valves are closed. This occurs when both atria and ventricles are relaxed and when the atria contract to pump blood into the ventricles. Figure b shows a frontal view. Although only the left side of the heart is illustrated, the process is virtually identical on the right.

Blood Flow from the Left Atrium to the Left Ventricle

(a) A transverse section through the heart illustrates the four heart valves during ventricular contraction. The two atrioventricular valves are closed, but the two semilunar valves are open. The atria and vessels have been removed. (b) A frontal view shows the closed mitral (bicuspid) valve that prevents backflow of blood into the left atrium. The aortic semilunar valve is open to allow blood to be ejected into the aorta.

(a) A transverse section through the heart illustrates the four heart valves during ventricular contraction. The two atrioventricular valves are closed, but the two semilunar valves are open. The atria and vessels have been removed. (b) A frontal view shows the closed mitral (bicuspid) valve that prevents backflow of blood into the left atrium. The aortic semilunar valve is open to allow blood to be ejected into the aorta.

When the ventricles begin to contract, pressure within the ventricles rises and blood flows toward the area of lowest pressure, which is initially in the atria. This backflow causes the cusps of the tricuspid and mitral (bicuspid) valves to close. These valves are tied down to the papillary muscles by chordae tendineae. During the relaxation phase of the cardiac cycle, the papillary muscles are also relaxed and the tension on the chordae tendineae is slight (see Figure b). However, as the myocardium of the ventricle contracts, so do the papillary muscles. This creates tension on the chordae tendineae (see Figure b), helping to hold the cusps of the atrioventricular valves in place and preventing them from being blown back into the atria.

The aortic and pulmonary semilunar valves lack the chordae tendineae and papillary muscles associated with the atrioventricular valves. Instead, they consist of pocket-like folds of endocardium reinforced with additional connective tissue. When the ventricles relax and the change in pressure forces the blood toward the ventricles, the blood presses against these cusps and seals the openings.

Visit this site to observe an echocardiogram of actual heart valves opening and closing. Although much of the heart has been “removed” from this gif loop so the chordae tendineae are not visible, why is their presence more critical for the atrioventricular valves (tricuspid and mitral) than the semilunar (aortic and pulmonary) valves?

DISORDERS OF THE HEART

Heart Defects

One very common form of interatrial septum pathology is patent foramen ovale, which occurs when the septum primum does not close at birth, and the fossa ovalis is unable to fuse. The word patent is from the Latin root patens for “open.” It may be benign or asymptomatic, perhaps never being diagnosed, or in extreme cases, it may require surgical repair to close the opening permanently. As much as 20–25 percent of the general population may have a patent foramen ovale, but fortunately, most have the benign, asymptomatic version. Patent foramen ovale is normally detected by auscultation of a heart murmur (an abnormal heart sound) and confirmed by imaging with an echocardiogram. Despite its prevalence in the general population, the causes of patent ovale are unknown, and there are no known risk factors. In nonlife-threatening cases, it is better to monitor the condition than to risk heart surgery to repair and seal the opening.

Coarctation of the aorta is a congenital abnormal narrowing of the aorta that is normally located at the insertion of the ligamentum arteriosum, the remnant of the fetal shunt called the ductus arteriosus. If severe, this condition drastically restricts blood flow through the primary systemic artery, which is life threatening. In some individuals, the condition may be fairly benign and not detected until later in life. Detectable symptoms in an infant include difficulty breathing, poor appetite, trouble feeding, or failure to thrive. In older individuals, symptoms include dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, headache, and nosebleeds. Treatment involves surgery to resect (remove) the affected region or angioplasty to open the abnormally narrow passageway. Studies have shown that the earlier the surgery is performed, the better the chance of survival.

A patent ductus arteriosus is a congenital condition in which the ductus arteriosus fails to close. The condition may range from severe to benign. Failure of the ductus arteriosus to close results in blood flowing from the higher pressure aorta into the lower pressure pulmonary trunk. This additional fluid moving toward the lungs increases pulmonary pressure and makes respiration difficult. Symptoms include shortness of breath (dyspnea), tachycardia, enlarged heart, a widened pulse pressure, and poor weight gain in infants. Treatments include surgical closure (ligation), manual closure using platinum coils or specialized mesh inserted via the femoral artery or vein, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to block the synthesis of prostaglandin E2, which maintains the vessel in an open position. If untreated, the condition can result in congestive heart failure.

Septal defects are not uncommon in individuals and may be congenital or caused by various disease processes. Tetralogy of Fallot is a congenital condition that may also occur from exposure to unknown environmental factors; it occurs when there is an opening in the interventricular septum caused by blockage of the pulmonary trunk, normally at the pulmonary semilunar valve. This allows blood that is relatively low in oxygen from the right ventricle to flow into the left ventricle and mix with the blood that is relatively high in oxygen. Symptoms include a distinct heart murmur, low blood oxygen percent saturation, dyspnea or difficulty in breathing, polycythemia, broadening (clubbing) of the fingers and toes, and in children, difficulty in feeding or failure to grow and develop. It is the most common cause of cyanosis following birth. The term “tetralogy” is derived from the four components of the condition, although only three may be present in an individual patient: pulmonary infundibular stenosis (rigidity of the pulmonary valve), overriding aorta (the aorta is shifted above both ventricles), ventricular septal defect (opening), and right ventricular hypertrophy (enlargement of the right ventricle). Other heart defects may also accompany this condition, which is typically confirmed by echocardiography imaging. Tetralogy of Fallot occurs in approximately 400 out of one million live births. Normal treatment involves extensive surgical repair, including the use of stents to redirect blood flow and replacement of valves and patches to repair the septal defect, but the condition has a relatively high mortality. Survival rates are currently 75 percent during the first year of life; 60 percent by 4 years of age; 30 percent by 10 years; and 5 percent by 40 years.

In the case of severe septal defects, including both tetralogy of Fallot and patent foramen ovale, failure of the heart to develop properly can lead to a condition commonly known as a “blue baby.” Regardless of normal skin pigmentation, individuals with this condition have an insufficient supply of oxygenated blood, which leads to cyanosis, a blue or purple coloration of the skin, especially when active.

Septal defects are commonly first detected through auscultation, listening to the chest using a stethoscope. In this case, instead of hearing normal heart sounds attributed to the flow of blood and closing of heart valves, unusual heart sounds may be detected. This is often followed by medical imaging to confirm or rule out a diagnosis. In many cases, treatment may not be needed. Some common congenital heart defects are illustrated in Figure.

Congenital Heart Defects

(a) A patent foramen ovale defect is an abnormal opening in the interatrial septum, or more commonly, a failure of the foramen ovale to close. (b) Coarctation of the aorta is an abnormal narrowing of the aorta. (c) A patent ductus arteriosus is the failure of the ductus arteriosus to close. (d) Tetralogy of Fallot includes an abnormal opening in the interventricular septum.

(a) A patent foramen ovale defect is an abnormal opening in the interatrial septum, or more commonly, a failure of the foramen ovale to close. (b) Coarctation of the aorta is an abnormal narrowing of the aorta. (c) A patent ductus arteriosus is the failure of the ductus arteriosus to close. (d) Tetralogy of Fallot includes an abnormal opening in the interventricular septum.

Layers

The wall of the heart is composed of three layers of unequal thickness. From superficial to deep, these are the epicardium, the myocardium, and the endocardium (see Figure). The outermost layer of the wall of the heart is also the innermost layer of the pericardium, the epicardium, or the visceral pericardium discussed earlier.

The middle and thickest layer is the myocardium, made largely of cardiac muscle cells. It is built upon a framework of collagenous fibers, plus the blood vessels that supply the myocardium and the nerve fibers that help regulate the heart. It is the contraction of the myocardium that pumps blood through the heart and into the major arteries. The muscle pattern is elegant and complex, as the muscle cells swirl and spiral around the chambers of the heart. They form a figure 8 pattern around the atria and around the bases of the great vessels. Deeper ventricular muscles also form a figure 8 around the two ventricles and proceed toward the apex. More superficial layers of ventricular muscle wrap around both ventricles. This complex swirling pattern allows the heart to pump blood more effectively than a simple linear pattern would. Figure illustrates the arrangement of muscle cells.

Heart Musculature

The swirling pattern of cardiac muscle tissue contributes significantly to the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

The swirling pattern of cardiac muscle tissue contributes significantly to the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

Although the ventricles on the right and left sides pump the same amount of blood per contraction, the muscle of the left ventricle is much thicker and better developed than that of the right ventricle. In order to overcome the high resistance required to pump blood into the long systemic circuit, the left ventricle must generate a great amount of pressure. The right ventricle does not need to generate as much pressure, since the pulmonary circuit is shorter and provides less resistance. Figure illustrates the differences in muscular thickness needed for each of the ventricles.

Differences in Ventricular Muscle Thickness

The myocardium in the left ventricle is significantly thicker than that of the right ventricle. Both ventricles pump the same amount of blood, but the left ventricle must generate a much greater pressure to overcome greater resistance in the systemic circuit. The ventricles are shown in both relaxed and contracting states. Note the differences in the relative size of the lumens, the region inside each ventricle where the blood is contained.

The myocardium in the left ventricle is significantly thicker than that of the right ventricle. Both ventricles pump the same amount of blood, but the left ventricle must generate a much greater pressure to overcome greater resistance in the systemic circuit. The ventricles are shown in both relaxed and contracting states. Note the differences in the relative size of the lumens, the region inside each ventricle where the blood is contained.

The innermost layer of the heart wall, the endocardium, is joined to the myocardium with a thin layer of connective tissue. The endocardium lines the chambers where the blood circulates and covers the heart valves. It is made of simple squamous epithelium called endothelium, which is continuous with the endothelial lining of the blood vessels (see Figure).

Once regarded as a simple lining layer, recent evidence indicates that the endothelium of the endocardium and the coronary capillaries may play active roles in regulating the contraction of the muscle within the myocardium. The endothelium may also regulate the growth patterns of the cardiac muscle cells throughout life, and the endothelins it secretes create an environment in the surrounding tissue fluids that regulates ionic concentrations and states of contractility. Endothelins are potent vasoconstrictors and, in a normal individual, establish a homeostatic balance with other vasoconstrictors and vasodilators.

Attribution

Creative Commons License The Khan Academy video is shared with permission and under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. For more content and activities related to this activity see the associated lesson.

Creative Commons License The text was modified from OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. May 18, 2016 http://cnx.org/contents/14fb4ad7-39a1-4eee-ab6e-3ef2482e3e22@8.25. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you would like  to use this material, please provide attribution as follows: Marini, S. (2016). http://www.ceces.ca/courses/circulatory-system-introduction/. Continuing Education Centre for Emergency Services.

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