Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology

Gravity and the circulation: "open" vs. "closed" systems

J. W. Hicks, H. S. Badeer


The elementary principles of liquid dynamics are described by the equations of Bernoulli and Poiseuille. Bernoulli's equation deals with nonviscous liquids under steady streamline flow. Pressures in such flows are related to gravity and/or acceleration. Changes in elevation affect the gravitational potential energy of the liquid and the velocity of flow determines the kinetic energy. The sum of these three factors represented in the Bernoulli equation remains constant, but the variables are interconvertible. In contrast, the Poiseuille equation describes the pressures related to viscous resistance only, and the energy of flow is dissipated as heat. A combination of the two equations describes the flow in tubes more realistically than either equation alone. In "open" systems gravity hinders uphill flow and causes downhill flow, in which the liquid acts as a falling body. In contrast, in "closed" systems, like the circulation, gravity does not hinder uphill flow nor does it cause downhill flow, because gravity acts equally on the ascending and descending limbs of the circuit. Furthermore, in closed systems, the liquid cannot "fall" by gravity from higher levels of gravitational potential to lower levels of potential. Flow, up or down, must be induced by some source of energy against the resistance of the circuit. In the case of the circulation, the pumping action of the heart supplies the needed energy gradients. Flow in collapsible tubes, like veins, obeys the same basic laws of liquid dynamics except that transmural pressures near zero or below zero reduce markedly the cross-sectional area of the tube, which increases the viscous resistance to flow.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)