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Chapter: Medical Physiology: Introduction to Physiology: Functional Organization of the Human Body and Control of the “Internal Environment”

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Control Systems of the Body

The human body has thousands of control systems in it. The most intricate of these are the genetic control systems that operate in all cells to help control intra-cellular function as well as extracellular function.

Control Systems of the Body

The human body has thousands of control systems in it. The most intricate of these are the genetic control systems that operate in all cells to help control intra-cellular function as well as extracellular function.

Many other control systems operate within theorgans to control functions of the individual partsof the organs; others operate throughout the entire body to control the interrelations between the organs.

For instance, the respiratory system, operating in association with the nervous system, regulates the concentration of carbon dioxide in the extracellular fluid. The liver and pancreas regulate the concentra-tion of glucose in the extracellular fluid, and the kidneys regulate concentrations of hydrogen, sodium, potassium, phosphate, and other ions in the extracel-lular fluid.

Examples of Control Mechanisms

Regulation of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide Concentrations in the Extracellular Fluid. Because oxygen is one of the majorsubstances required for chemical reactions in the cells, it is fortunate that the body has a special control mechanism to maintain an almost exact and constant oxygen concentration in the extracellular fluid. This mechanism depends principally on the chemical char-acteristics of hemoglobin, which is present in all red blood cells. Hemoglobin combines with oxygen as the blood passes through the lungs. Then, as the blood passes through the tissue capillaries, hemoglobin, because of its own strong chemical affinity for oxygen, does not release oxygen into the tissue fluid if too much oxygen is already there. But if the oxygen con-centration in the tissue fluid is too low, sufficient oxygen is released to re-establish an adequate con-centration. Thus, regulation of oxygen concentration in the tissues is vested principally in the chemical characteristics of hemoglobin itself. This regulation is called the oxygen-buffering function of hemoglobin.

Carbon dioxide concentration in the extracellular fluid is regulated in a much different way. Carbon dioxide is a major end product of the oxidative reac-tions in cells. If all the carbon dioxide formed in the cells continued to accumulate in the tissue fluids, the mass action of the carbon dioxide itself would soon halt all energy-giving reactions of the cells. Fortu-nately, a higher than normal carbon dioxide concen-tration in the blood excites the respiratory center, causing a person to breathe rapidly and deeply. This increases expiration of carbon dioxide and, therefore, removes excess carbon dioxide from the blood and tissue fluids. This process continues until the concen-tration returns to normal.

Regulation of Arterial Blood Pressure. Several systems con-tribute to the regulation of arterial blood pressure. One of these, the baroreceptor system, is a simple and excellent example of a rapidly acting control mecha-nism. In the walls of the bifurcation region of the carotid arteries in the neck, and also in the arch of the aorta in the thorax, are many nerve receptors called baroreceptors, which are stimulated by stretch of thearterial wall. When the arterial pressure rises too high, the baroreceptors send barrages of nerve impulses to the medulla of the brain. Here these impulses inhibit the vasomotor center, which in turn decreases the number of impulses transmitted from the vasomotor center through the sympathetic nervous system to the heart and blood vessels. Lack of these impulses causes diminished pumping activity by the heart and also dilation of the peripheral blood vessels, allowing increased blood flow through the vessels. Both of these effects decrease the arterial pressure back toward normal.

Conversely, a decrease in arterial pressure below normal relaxes the stretch receptors, allowing the vasomotor center to become more active than usual, thereby causing vasoconstriction and increased heart pumping, and raising arterial pressure back toward normal.

Normal Ranges and Physical Characteristics of Important Extracellular Fluid Constituents

Table 1–1 lists the more important constituents and physical characteristics of extracellular fluid, along with their normal values, normal ranges, and maximum limits without causing death. Note the narrowness of the normal range for each one. Values outside these ranges are usually caused by illness.


Most important are the limits beyond which abnormalities can cause death. For example, an increase in the body temperature of only 11°F (7°C) above normal can lead to a vicious cycle of increasing cellular metabolism that destroys the cells. Note also the narrow range for acid-base balance in the body, with a normal pH value of 7.4 and lethal values only about 0.5 on either side of normal. Another important factor is the potassium ion concentration, because whenever it decreases to less than one third normal, a person is likely to be paralyzed as a result of the nerves’ inability to carry signals. Alternatively, if the potassium ion concentration increases to two or more times normal, the heart muscle is likely to be severely depressed. Also, when the calcium ion concentration falls below about one half of normal, a person is likely to experience tetanic contraction of muscles throughout the body because of the spontaneous generation of excess nerve impulses in the peripheral nerves. When the glucose concentration falls below one half of normal, a person frequently develops extreme mental irritability and sometimes even convulsions.

These examples should give one an appreciation for the extreme value and even the necessity of the vast numbers of control systems that keep the body operating in health; in the absence of any one of these controls, serious body malfunction or death can result.

Characteristics of Control Systems

The aforementioned examples of homeostatic control mechanisms are only a few of the many thousands in the body, all of which have certain characteristics in common. These characteristics are explained in this section.

Negative Feedback Nature of Most Control Systems

Most control systems of the body act by negative feed-back, which can best be explained by reviewing someof the homeostatic control systems mentioned previously. In the regulation of carbon dioxide concentration, a high concentration of carbon dioxide in the extracellular fluid increases pulmonary ventilation. This, in turn, decreases the extracellular fluid carbon dioxide concentration because the lungs expire greater amounts of carbon dioxide from the body. In other words, the high concentration of carbon dioxide initiates events that decrease the concentration toward normal, which is negative to the initiating stimulus. Conversely, if the carbon dioxide concentration falls too low, this causes feedback to increase the concentration. This response also is negative to the initiating stimulus.

In the arterial pressure–regulating mechanisms, a high pressure causes a series of reactions that promote a lowered pressure, or a low pressure causes a series of reactions that promote an elevated pressure. In both instances, these effects are negative with respect to the initiating stimulus.

Therefore, in general, if some factor becomes excessive or deficient, a control system initiates negativefeedback, which consists of a series of changes thatreturn the factor toward a certain mean value, thus maintaining homeostasis.

“Gain” of a Control System. The degree of effectivenesswith which a control system maintains constant conditions is determined by the gain of the negative feedback. For instance, let us assume that a large volume of blood is transfused into a person whose baroreceptor pressure control system is not function-ing, and the arterial pressure rises from the normal level of 100 mm Hg up to 175 mm Hg. Then, let us assume that the same volume of blood is injected into the same person when the baroreceptor system is func-tioning, and this time the pressure increases only 25 mm Hg. Thus, the feedback control system has caused a “correction” of –50 mm Hg—that is, from 175 mm Hg to 125 mm Hg. There remains an increase in pressure of +25 mm Hg, called the “error,” which means that the control system is not 100 per cent effec-tive in preventing change. The gain of the system is then calculated by the following formula:


Thus, in the baroreceptor system example, the correc-tion is –50 mm Hg and the error persisting is +25 mm Hg. Therefore, the gain of the person’s baroreceptor system for control of arterial pressure is –50 divided by +25, or –2. That is, a disturbance that increases or decreases the arterial pressure does so only one third as much as would occur if this control system were not present.

The gains of some other physiologic control systems are much greater than that of the baroreceptor system. For instance, the gain of the system controlling internal body temperature when a person is exposed to moderately cold weather is about –33. Therefore, one can see that the temperature control system is much more effective than the baroreceptor pressure control system.

Positive Feedback Can Sometimes Cause Vicious Cycles and Death

One might ask the question, Why do essentially all control systems of the body operate by negative feed-back rather than positive feedback? If one considers the nature of positive feedback, one immediately sees that positive feedback does not lead to stability but to instability and often death.

Figure 1–3 shows an example in which death can ensue from positive feedback. This figure depicts the pumping effectiveness of the heart, showing that the heart of a healthy human being pumps about 5 liters of blood per minute. If the person is suddenly bled 2 liters, the amount of blood in the body is decreased to such a low level that not enough blood is available for the heart to pump effectively. As a result, the arterial pressure falls, and the flow of blood to the heart muscle through the coronary vessels diminishes. This results in weakening of the heart, further diminished pumping, a further decrease in coronary blood flow, and still more weakness of the heart; the cycle repeats itself again and again until death occurs. Note that each cycle in the feedback results in further weakening of the heart. In other words, the initiating stimulus causes more of the same, which is positive feedback.


        Positive feedback is better known as a “vicious cycle,” but a mild degree of positive feedback can be overcome by the negative feedback control mecha-nisms of the body, and the vicious cycle fails to develop. For instance, if the person in the aforemen-tioned example were bled only 1 liter instead of 2 liters, the normal negative feedback mechanisms for controlling cardiac output and arterial pressure would overbalance the positive feedback and the person would recover, as shown by the dashed curve of Figure 1–3.

Positive Feedback Can Sometimes Be Useful. In someinstances, the body uses positive feedback to its advan-tage. Blood clotting is an example of a valuable use of positive feedback. When a blood vessel is ruptured and a clot begins to form, multiple enzymes called clot-ting factors are activated within the clot itself. Someof these enzymes act on other unactivated enzymes of the immediately adjacent blood, thus causing more blood clotting. This process continues until the hole in the vessel is plugged and bleeding no longer occurs. On occasion, this mechanism can get out of hand and cause the formation of unwanted clots. In fact, this is what initiates most acute heart attacks, which are caused by a clot beginning on the inside surface of an atherosclerotic plaque in a coro-nary artery and then growing until the artery is blocked.

Childbirth is another instance in which positive feedback plays a valuable role. When uterine contrac-tions become strong enough for the baby’s head to begin pushing through the cervix, stretch of the cervix sends signals through the uterine muscle back to the body of the uterus, causing even more powerful contractions. Thus, the uterine contractions stretch the cervix, and the cervical stretch causes stronger contractions. When this process becomes powerful enough, the baby is born. If it is not powerful enough, the contractions usually die out, and a few days pass before they begin again.

Another important use of positive feedback is for the generation of nerve signals. That is, when the membrane of a nerve fiber is stimulated, this causes slight leakage of sodium ions through sodium channels in the nerve membrane to the fiber’s interior. The sodium ions entering the fiber then change the membrane potential, which in turn causes more opening of channels, more change of potential, still more opening of channels, and so forth. Thus, a slight leak becomes an explosion of sodium entering the interior of the nerve fiber, which creates the nerve action potential. This action potential in turn causes electrical current to flow along both the outside and the inside of the fiber and initiates additional action potentials. This process continues again and again until the nerve signal goes all the way to the end of the fiber.

In each case in which positive feedback is useful, the positive feedback itself is part of an overall negative feedback process. For example, in the case of blood clotting, the positive feedback clotting process is a negative feedback process for maintenance of normal blood volume. Also, the positive feedback that causes nerve signals allows the nerves to participate in thousands of negative feedback nervous control systems.

More Complex Types of Control Systems—Adaptive Control

Later in this text, when we study the nervous system, we shall see that this system contains great numbers of interconnected control mechanisms. Some are simple feedback systems similar to those already discussed. Many are not. For instance, some move-ments of the body occur so rapidly that there is not enough time for nerve signals to travel from the peripheral parts of the body all the way to the brain and then back to the periphery again to control the movement. Therefore, the brain uses a principle called feed-forward control to cause required muscle con-tractions. That is, sensory nerve signals from the moving parts apprise the brain whether the movement is performed correctly. If not, the brain corrects the feed-forward signals that it sends to the muscles the next time the movement is required. Then, if stillfurther correction is needed, this will be done again for subsequent movements. This is called adaptive control.

Adaptive control, in a sense, is delayed negative feedback.

Thus, one can see how complex the feedback control systems of the body can be. A person’s life depends on all of them. Therefore, a major share of this text is devoted to discussing these life-giving mechanisms.


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