What is Medical Physiology?

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  • Written By: Karyn Maier
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2019
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Medical physiology is the study of the various systems of the body, from a molecular level through integrated functioning as it relates to the whole being. Generally, the term medical physiology applies to human beings. However, the science of physiology applies equally to all living things. In other words, what is understood about cellular metabolism in any kind of plant or animal can be extrapolated to human physiology. I

The scope of scientific disciplines that have branched from medical physiology is no less encompassing. In fact, while its primary concentration pertains to organs and body systems, the interdisciplinary nature of medical physiology lends itself to a variety of expanded fields, such as molecular biology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. As a solo area of study, medical physiology stems from the work of the early 20th century physiologist, Walter Cannon, who presented his theory of homeostasis, or body wisdom. Inspired by the earlier concept of milieu interieur, Cannon proposed homeostasis as a state of internal stability maintained by the body through deliberate communication and regulation between body systems.


This may sound like heady stuff, but the basis of medical physiology is actually quite sound and simple to illustrate. If one were to think of the human body as a home heating system, for example, it makes perfect sense. When a heating thermostat, which has been previously programmed, detects that the ambient temperature has fallen below an acceptable level, it sends an electronic signal to the furnace to produce more heat. The human body is equipped with similar devices to trigger the appropriate response to maintain stability. However, the systems of the body are not limited to electrical impulses and use chemical messengers as well.

Unlike branches of science focused on form and structure, such as anatomy, medical physiology is clearly concerned with function. However, recognizing that all of these aspects impact the integration of systems leads to targeted areas of physiology. For example, metabolism and physical growth are facilitated by hormonal signals produced by endocrine system physiology. Certain brain activities and nerve impulses that automate breathing and control conscious movement are regulated by the nervous system, specifically the autonomic nervous system and the somatic nervous system, respectively. The study of physiological processes extends to the heart, eyes, and muscles as well.


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