Blood vessels participate in homeostasis on a moment-to-moment basis and contribute to the pathophysiology of diseases of virtually every organ system. Hence, an understanding of the fundamentals of vascular biology furnishes a foundation for understanding the normal function of all organ systems and many diseases. The smallest blood vessels—capillaries—consist of a monolayer of endothelial cells apposed to a basement membrane, adjacent to occasional smooth-muscle-like cells known as pericytes (Fig. 265e-1A). Unlike larger vessels, pericytes do not invest the entire microvessel to form a continuous sheath. Arteries typically have a trilaminar structure (Fig. 265e-1B–E). The intima consists of a monolayer of endothelial cells continuous with those of the capillaries. The middle layer, or tunica media, consists of layers of smooth-muscle cells; in veins, the media can contain just a few layers of smooth-muscle cells (Fig. 265e-1B). The outer layer, the adventitia, consists of looser extracellular matrix with occasional fibroblasts, mast cells, and nerve terminals. Larger arteries have their own vasculature, the vasa vasorum, which nourishes the outer aspects of the tunica media. The adventitia of many veins surpasses the intima in thickness.
The tone of muscular arterioles regulates blood pressure and flow through various arterial beds. These smaller arteries have a relatively thick tunica media in relation to the adventitia (Fig. 265e-1C). Medium-size muscular arteries similarly contain a prominent tunica media (Fig. 265e-1D); atherosclerosis commonly affects this type of muscular artery. The larger elastic arteries have a much more structured tunica media consisting of concentric bands of smooth-muscle cells, interspersed with strata of elastin-rich extracellular matrix sandwiched between layers of smooth-muscle cells (Fig. 265e-1E). Larger arteries have a clearly demarcated internal elastic lamina that forms the barrier between the intima and the media. An external elastic lamina demarcates the media of arteries from the surrounding adventitia.
Schematics of the structures of various types of blood vessels. A. Capillaries consist of an endothelial tube in contact with a discontinuous population of pericytes. B. Veins typically have thin medias and thicker adventitias. C. A small muscular artery features a prominent tunica media. D. Larger muscular arteries have a prominent media with smooth-muscle cells embedded in a complex extracellular matrix. E. Larger elastic arteries have cylindrical layers of elastic tissue alternating with concentric rings of smooth-muscle cells.
Assessment of endothelial function in vivo using blood pressure cuff occlusion and release. Upon deflation of the cuff, an ultrasound probe monitors changes in diameter (A) and blood flow (B) of the brachial artery (C). (Reproduced with permission of J. Vita, MD.)