The smooth muscle of each organ is distinctive from that of most other organs in several ways: (1) physical dimensions, (2) organization into bundles or sheets, (3) response to different types of stimuli, (4) characteristics of innervation, and (5) function. Yet, for the sake of simplicity, smooth muscle can generally be divided into two major types, which are shown in Figure 8-1: multi-unit smooth muscle and unitary (or single-unit) smooth muscle.
Multi-Unit Smooth Muscle. This type of smooth muscle is composed of discrete, separate smooth muscle fibers. Each fiber operates independently of the others and often is innervated by a single nerve ending, as occurs for skeletal muscle fibers. Further, the outer surfaces of these fibers, like those of skeletal muscle fibers, are covered by a thin layer of basement membrane-like substance, a mixture of fine collagen and glycoprotein that helps insulate the separate fibers from one another.
The most important characteristic of multi-unit smooth muscle fibers is that each fiber can contract independently of the others, and their control is exerted mainly by nerve signals. In contrast, a major share of control of unitary smooth muscle is exerted by non-nervous stimuli. Some examples of multi-unit smooth muscle are the ciliary muscle of the eye, the iris muscle of the eye, and the pilo-erector muscles that cause erection of the hairs when stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system.
Unitary Smooth Muscle. The term "unitary" is confusing because it does not mean single muscle fibers. Instead, it means a mass of hundreds to thousands of smooth muscle fibers that contract together as a single unit. The fibers usually are arranged in sheets or bundles, and their cell membranes are adherent to one another at multiple points so that force generated in one muscle fiber can be transmitted to the next. In addition, the cell membranes are joined by many gap junctions through which ions can flow freely from one muscle cell to the next so that action potentials or simple ion flow without action potentials can travel
from one fiber to the next and cause the muscle fibers to contract together. This type of smooth muscle is also known as syncytial smooth muscle because of its syncytial interconnections among fibers. It is also called visceral smooth muscle because it is found in the walls of most viscera of the body, including the gut, bile ducts, ureters, uterus, and many blood vessels.
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