Background: The structural and functional intigration of smooth muscle cells and elastic laminae in the aortic media is not well established. Detailed information concerning normal ultrastructural features of the aortic media will provide a better understanding of the medial changes that occur in vascular diseases such as hypertension and aortic aneurysms.
Experimental design: The ultrastructural development and organization of connections between smooth muscle cells and elastic laminae in the mouse aortic media were studied by light and electron microscopy.
Results: Early in development, the smooth muscle cells become linked to the elastic laminae by bundles of microfibrils. These microfibrils become progressively infiltrated with elastin so as to form extensions of elastin from the elastic laminae in the adult media. Each elastin extension spans obliquely from the elastic lamina to the surface of the smooth muscle cell where it attaches in a region of membrane occupied by an intracellular membrane-associated dense plaque. On the cytoplasmic face of the plaque, a contractile filament bundle penetrates and anchors in an orientation similar to that of the extracellular elastin extension. The contractile filament bundle traverses the cell obliquely and anchors in a dense plaque on the opposite side of the cell that is in turn linked to the next elastic lamina by another elastin extension. The extracellular elastin extensions and the intracellular contractile filament bundles thus form a "contractile-elastic unit," a continuous line of structures that links adjacent elastic laminae. The oblique orientation of the contractile-elastic units reverses direction in successive smooth muscle cell layers in a herringbone-like pattern. Thus, tension transmitted to one elastic lamina by the smooth muscle cells on either side results in a uniform force exerted on the elastic lamina in one circumferential direction, that on the adjacent elastic laminae being in the opposite direction.
Conclusions: Results from this study demonstrate the presence of smooth muscle cell to elastic lamina connections that form early in development as contractile-elastic units; basic units of aortic medial ultrastructure. The overall organization of the contractile-elastic units within the aortic media is proposed to provide a means for coordinating contractile and elastic tensions in response to mechanical stresses imposed on the vessel wall.