A tight squeeze: how do we make sense of small changes in microvascular diameter?
Davis H., Attwell D.
The brain is an energetically demanding tissue which, to function adequately, requires constant fine tuning of its supporting blood flow, and hence energy supply. Whilst blood flow was traditionally believed to be regulated only by vascular smooth muscle cells on arteries and arterioles supplying the brain, recent work has suggested a critical role for capillary pericytes, which are also contractile. This concept has evoked some controversy, especially over the relative contributions of arterioles and capillaries to the control of cerebral blood flow. Here we outline why pericytes are in a privileged position to control cerebral blood flow. First we discuss the evidence, and fundamental equations, which describe how the small starting diameter of capillaries, compared to upstream arterioles, confers a potentially greater control by capillary pericytes than by arterioles over total cerebral vascular resistance. Then we suggest that the faster time frame over which low branch order capillary pericytes dilate in response to local energy demands provides a niche role for pericytes to regulate blood flow compared to slower responding arterioles. Finally, we discuss the role of pericytes in capillary stalling, whereby pericyte contraction appears to facilitate a transient stall of circulating blood cells, exacerbating the effect of pericytes upon cerebral blood flow.