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Physiology of the respiratory system
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Pulmonary ventilation is the process of moving air into and out of the lungs to facilitate gas exchange. The respiratory system uses both a negative pressure system and the contraction of muscles to achieve pulmonary ventilation. The negative pressure system of the respiratory system involves the establishment of a negative pressure gradient between the alveoli and the external atmosphere. The pleural membrane seals the lungs and maintains the lungs at a pressure slightly below that of the atmosphere when the lungs are at rest. This results in air following the pressure gradient and passively filling the lungs at rest. As the lungs fill with air, the pressure within the lungs rises until it matches the atmospheric pressure. At this point, more air can be inhaled by the contraction of the diaphragm and the external intercostal muscles, increasing the volume of the thorax and reducing the pressure of the lungs below that of the atmosphere again.
To exhale air, the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles relax while the internal intercostal muscles contract to reduce the volume of the thorax and increase the pressure within the thoracic cavity. The pressure gradient is now reversed, resulting in the exhalation of air until the pressures inside the lungs and outside of the body are equal. At this point, the elastic nature of the lungs causes them to recoil back to their resting volume, restoring the negative pressure gradient present during inhalation.
External respiration is the exchange of gases between the air filling the alveoli and the blood in the capillaries surrounding the walls of the alveoli. Air entering the lungs from the atmosphere has a higher partial pressure of oxygen and a lower partial pressure of carbon dioxide than does the blood in the capillaries. The difference in partial pressures causes the gases to diffuse passively along their pressure gradients from high to low pressure through the simple squamous epithelium lining of the alveoli. The net result of external respiration is the movement of oxygen from the air into the blood and the movement of carbon dioxide from the blood into the air. The oxygen can then be transported to the body’s tissues while carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during exhalation.
Internal respiration is the exchange of gases between the blood in capillaries and the tissues of the body. Capillary blood has a higher partial pressure of oxygen and a lower partial pressure of carbon dioxide than the tissues through which it passes. The difference in partial pressures leads to the diffusion of gases along their pressure gradients from high to low pressure through the endothelium lining of the capillaries. The net result of internal respiration is the diffusion of oxygen into the tissues and the diffusion of carbon dioxide into the blood.
Transportation of Gases
The 2 major respiratory gases, oxygen and carbon dioxide, are transported through the body in the blood. Blood plasma has the ability to transport some dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide, but most of the gases transported in the blood are bonded to transport molecules. Hemoglobin is an important transport molecule found in red blood cells that carries almost 99% of the oxygen in the blood. Hemoglobin can also carry a small amount of carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. However, the vast majority of carbon dioxide is carried in the plasma as bicarbonate ion. When the partial pressure of carbon dioxide is high in the tissues, the enzyme carbonic anhydrase catalyzes a reaction between carbon dioxide and water to form carbonic acid. Carbonic acid then dissociates into hydrogen ion and bicarbonate ion. When the partial pressure of carbon dioxide is low in the lungs, the reactions reverse and carbon dioxide is liberated into the lungs to be exhaled.
Homeostatic Control of Respiration
Under normal resting conditions, the body maintains a quiet breathing rate and depth called eupnea. Eupnea is maintained until the body’s demand for oxygen and production of carbon dioxide rises due to greater exertion. Autonomic chemoreceptors in the body monitor the partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and send signals to the respiratory center of the brain stem. The respiratory center then adjusts the rate and depth of breathing to return the blood to its normal levels of gas partial pressures.