Objective: Using a newly acquired archive of previously prepared material, we sought to re-examine the origin of the pulmonary vein in the human heart, aiming to determine whether it originates from the systemic venous sinus ("sinus venosus"), or appears as a new structure draining to the left atrium. In addition, we examined the temporal sequence of incorporation of the initially solitary pulmonary vein to the stage at which four venous orifices opened to the left atrium.
Methods: We studied 26 normal human embryos, ranging from 3.8 mm to 112 mm crown-rump length, and representing the period from the 12th Carnegie stage to 15 weeks of gestation.
Results: The pulmonary vein canalised as a solitary vessel within the mediastinal tissues so as to connect the intraparenchymal pulmonary venous networks to the heart, using the regressing dorsal mesocardium as its portal of cardiac entry. The vein was always distinct from the tributaries of the embryonic systemic venous sinus. The orifice of the solitary vein became committed to the left atrium by growth of the vestibular spine. During development, a marked disparity was seen between the temporal and morphological patterns of incorporation of the left-sided and right-sided veins into the left atrium. The pattern of the primary bifurcation was asymmetrical, a much longer tributary being formed on the left than on the right. Contact between the atrial wall and the venous tributary on the left initially produced a shelf, which became effaced with incorporation of the two left-sided veins into the atrium.
Conclusions: The initial process of formation of the human pulmonary vein is very similar to that seen in animal models. The walls of the initially solitary vein in humans become incorporated by a morphologically asymmetric process so that four pulmonary veins eventually drain independently into the left atrium. Failure of incorporation on the left side may provide the substrate for congenital division of the left atrium.