Referring to the earlier discussion of diffusion of gases in water, one can apply the same principles and mathematical formulas to diffusion of gases through the respiratory membrane. Thus, the factors that determine how rapidly a gas will pass through the membrane are (1) the thickness of the membrane, (2) the surface area of the membrane, (3) the diffusion coefficient of the gas in the substance of the membrane, and (4) the partial pressure difference of the gas between the two sides of the membrane.
The thickness of the respiratory membrane occasionally increases—for instance, as a result of edema fluid in the interstitial space of the membrane and in the alveoli—so that the respiratory gases must then diffuse not only through the membrane but also through this fluid. Also, some pulmonary diseases cause fibrosis of the lungs, which can increase the thickness of some portions of the respiratory membrane. Because the rate of diffusion through the membrane is inversely proportional to the thickness of the membrane, any factor that increases the thickness to more than two to three times normal can interfere significantly with normal respiratory exchange of gases.
The surface area of the respiratory membrane can be greatly decreased by many conditions. For instance, removal of an entire lung decreases the total surface area to one half normal. Also, in emphysema, many of the alveoli coalesce, with dissolution of many alveolar walls. Therefore, the new alveolar chambers are much larger than the original alveoli, but the total surface area of the respiratory membrane is often decreased as much as fivefold because of loss of the alveolar walls. When the total surface area is decreased to about one third to one fourth normal, exchange of gases through the membrane is impeded to a significant degree, even under resting conditions, and during competitive sports and other strenuous exercise, even the slightest decrease in surface area of the lungs can be a serious detriment to respiratory exchange of gases.
The diffusion coefficient for transfer of each gas through the respiratory membrane depends on the gas's solubility in the membrane and, inversely, on the square root of the gas's molecular weight. The rate of diffusion in the respiratory membrane is almost exactly the same as that in water, for reasons explained earlier. Therefore, for a given pressure difference, carbon dioxide diffuses about 20 times as rapidly as oxygen. Oxygen diffuses about twice as rapidly as nitrogen.
The pressure difference across the respiratory membrane is the difference between the partial pressure of the gas in the alveoli and the partial pressure of the gas in the pulmonary capillary blood. The partial pressure represents a measure of the total number of molecules of a particular gas striking a unit area of the alveolar surface of the membrane in unit time, and the pressure of the gas in the blood represents the number of molecules that attempt to escape from the blood in the opposite direction. Therefore, the difference between these two pressures is a measure of the net tendency for the gas molecules to move through the membrane. When the partial pressure of a gas in the alveoli is greater than the pressure of the gas in the blood, as is true for oxygen, net diffusion from the alveoli into the blood occurs; when the pressure of the gas in the blood is greater than the partial pressure in the alveoli, as is true for carbon dioxide, net diffusion from the blood into the alveoli occurs.
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