The Tunica Intima


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Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The tunica intima (also called the tunica interna) is composed of epithelial and connective tissue layers. Lining the tunica intima is the specialized simple squamous epithelium called the endothelium, which is continuous throughout the entire vascular system, including the lining of the chambers of the heart. Damage to this endothelial lining and exposure of blood to the collagenous fibers beneath is one of the primary causes of clot formation. Until recently, the endothelium was viewed simply as the boundary between the blood in the lumen and the walls of the vessels. Recent studies, however, have shown that it is physiologically critical to such activities as helping to regulate capillary exchange and altering blood flow. The endothelium releases local chemicals called endothelins that can constrict the smooth muscle within the walls of the vessel to increase blood pressure. Uncompensated overproduction of endothelins may contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease.

Next to the endothelium is the basement membrane, or basal lamina, that effectively binds the endothelium to the connective tissue. The basement membrane provides strength while maintaining flexibility, and it is permeable, allowing materials to pass through it. The thin outer layer of the tunica intima contains a small amount of areolar connective tissue that consists primarily of elastic fibers to provide the vessel with additional flexibility; it also contains some collagenous fibers to provide additional strength.

In larger arteries, there is also a thick, distinct layer of elastic fibers known as the internal elastic membrane (also called the internal elastic lamina) at the boundary with the tunica media. Like the other components of the tunica intima, the internal elastic membrane provides structure while allowing the vessel to stretch. It is permeated with small openings that allow exchange of materials between the tunics. The internal elastic membrane is not apparent in veins. In addition, many veins, particularly in the lower limbs, contain valves formed by sections of thickened endothelium that are reinforced with connective tissue, extending into the lumen.

Under the microscope, the lumen and the entire tunica intima of a vein will appear smooth, whereas those of an artery will normally appear wavy because of the partial constriction of the smooth muscle in the tunica media, the next layer of blood vessel walls.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: