The aorta is an elastic artery, and as such is quite distensible. Mean arterial blood pressure is highest in the aorta and mean arterial pressure diminishes across the circulation from aorta to arteries to arterioles to capillaries to veins back to atrium: the difference between aortic and right atrial pressure accounts for blood flow in the circulation. The aorta consists of a heterogeneous mixture of smooth muscle, nerves, intimal cells, endothelial cells, fibroblast-like cells, and a complex extracellular matrix. The vascular wall consists of several layers known as the tunica adventitia, tunica media, and tunica intima. The thickness of the aorta encourages an extensive network of tiny blood vessels called vasa vasorum, which feed the outer layers of the aorta. The aortic arch contains baroreceptors and chemoreceptors that relay information concerning blood pressure and blood pH and carbon dioxide levels to the medulla oblongata of the brain. This information is processed by the brain and the autonomic nervous system mediates the homeostatic responses.
Within the tunica media, smooth muscle and the extracellular matrix are quantitatively the largest components of the aortic vascular wall. The fundamental unit of the aorta is the elastic lamella, which consists of smooth muscle and elastic matrix. The medial layer of the aorta consist of concentric musculoelastic layers (the elastic lamella) in mammals. The smooth muscle component does not dramatically alter the diameter of the aorta but rather serves to increase the stiffness and viscoelasticity of the aortic wall when activated. The elastic matrix dominates the biomechanical properties of the aorta. The elastic matrix forms lamella, consisting of elastic fibers, collagens(predominately type III), proteoglycans, and glycoaminoglycans. When the left ventricle contracts to force blood into the aorta, the aorta expands. This stretching gives the potential energy that will help maintain blood pressure during diastole, as during this time the aorta contracts passively. This Windkessel effect of the great elastic arteries has important biomechanical implications. The elastic recoil helps conserve the energy from the pumping heart and smooth out the pulsatile nature created by the heart. Aortic pressure is highest at the aorta and becomes less pulsatile and lower pressure as blood vessels divide into arteries, arterioles, and capillaries such that flow is slow and smooth for gases and nutrient exchange.
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