Coronary Artery Plaque
What happens to the coronary artery in atherosclerosis?
In coronary artery disease (coronary atherosclerosis), injury to the intima of the artery, leads to the formation of plaques, which are regions of thickening on the inner lining of the artery. How then do the plaques form? In response to the injury, the smooth muscle cells (SMCs) from the media and perhaps from the adventitia move (migrate) into the intima. In the intima, these SMCs reproduce themselves (divide) and make (synthesize) connective tissue. These processes of migration, division and synthesis, which collectively are referred to as intimal proliferation (buildup), cause thickening of the intima. When cholesterol, other fats and inflammatory cells, such as white blood cells, enter the proliferating, thickened intima, the result is an atherosclerotic plaque. Then, as these plaques grow, they accumulate scar (fibrous) tissue and abundant calcium. Calcium is the hard material in our teeth and bones, hence, the plaques are often hard, which is why atherosclerosis is sometimes referred to as "hardening of the arteries."
Who gets coronary artery plaques and what happens to the plaques?
Most adults in industrialized nations have some plaques (atherosclerosis) on the inner (lumenal) surface of their coronary arteries. Autopsy studies of young soldiers who died in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War showed that even young adults in their 20s usually have coronary arteries that had initial signs of heart artery blockages. This thickening is the beginning of intimal proliferation and plaque formation. The distribution, severity (amount of plaque), and rate of growth of the plaques in the coronary arteries vary greatly from person to person. The picture below shows a coronary artery with an uneven (asymmetric), stable atherosclerotic plaque. A stable plaque may grow slowly, but has an intact inner (lumenal) surface with no clot (thrombus) on this surface.
Coronary Artery with Stable Atherosclerotic Plaque Cross-sectional Microscopic View