Organ Systems

The brain is a marvel of nano-engineering and computer science. Beyond the great number of neurons, the synaptic connections form a lattice that is almost incomprehensibly complex. Neurology is still an emerging science, and many discoveries may be made by creative researchers, both in the fields of physical medicine, as well as in psychiatry.

The heart has four valves, namely the mitral, aortic, tricuspid, and pulmonary, that regulate the flow of blood through the heart’s four chambers. Each valve consists of a flap, or leaflet, that regulates the blood flow to adjacent chambers, then snaps shut to prevent blood from flowing backwards. As in an automobile engine, valves can experience leakage, a situation in which valves do not close completely, allowing blood to flow in reverse. A second valve disorder is stenosis, in which the malfunctioning valve limits the volume of blood flow.

Both conditions can significantly reduce the heart’s ability to pump blood. In many cases, heart disease progresses slowly, as the heart compensates for irregularities in blood flow, so symptoms may not seem severe. One may appear symptom-free, yet have serious heart valve disease, requiring immediate hospitalization. In general, irregular valve activity creates abnormal heart sounds, such as murmurs and clicks, that can be heard with a stethoscope. Finally, an echocardiogram may be called for in order to confirm the diagnosis. Further diagnostics can be performed, such as CT-angiography and cardiac MRI.

The lungs have miles of tiny passages, easily clogged by pollutants such as smoke, and other microscopic irritants. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that narrows the airways. In the US, more than 25 million people are known to have asthma, and new research indicates that a chemical compound found in many air fresheners, bathroom cleaners, and deodorizing products, may be harmful to the lungs.

Air first enters your body through your nose or mouth, which wets and warms the air. Conversely, cold, dry air can irritate your lungs. The air then travels through your voice box and down your windpipe, which splits into two bronchial tubes entering the lungs. A thin flap of tissue called the epiglottis covers your windpipe when you swallow, preventing food and drink from entering the air passage.

Except for the mouth and some parts of the nose, all of the airways are covered by cilia, which contain a sticky, mucus coating. The cilia trap germs and other foreign particles that enter your airways when you breathe in. Fine hairs then sweep the particles up to the nose or mouth. From there, they’re swallowed, coughed, or sneezed out of the body.

Your lungs and associated blood vessels deliver oxygen to your body and remove carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the left lung is slightly smaller than the right lung, allowing additional room for your heart. Within the lungs, individual bronchi branch into thousands of thinner tubes called bronchioles. These tubes end in bunches of tiny round air sacs, the alveoli. Each air sac is covered by a mesh of tiny capillaries. The pulmonary artery delivers blood rich in carbon dioxide (lacking in oxygen) to the capillaries that surround the air sacs. Inside, carbon dioxide migrates from the blood back into the air. At the same time, oxygen is absorbed. The oxygen-rich blood then travels to the heart through the pulmonary vein, completing respiration.

The ear depends on coordinated events that transform sound waves into electrical impulses. The auditory nerve transmits these signals to the brain. Initially, sound waves enter the outer ear and traverse the outer ear canal, leading to the eardrum. The eardrum vibrates from the incoming sound waves and sends vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear.

These bones couple the sound waves from the air to fluid vibrations in the cochlea of the inner ear. Hair-like sensory cells perched on top of the basilar membrane ride the ripple of fluid thus created. As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic stereocilia sitting on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend, which causes pore-like channels at the tips of the stereocilia to open. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cell, sparking an electrical signal. The auditory nerve then carries this signal to the brain, which translates it into a sound that we can recognize and understand.

When exposed to loud noises over an extended period, hearing losses may occur. Over time, sounds become distorted, and it may be difficult to understand other people when they talk. Sometimes exposure to continuous noise causes a temporary hearing loss, but there also may be residual long-term damage. Loud noise exposure also may be responsible for tinnitus, which is perceived as a ringing in the ears or cranium.