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Capillary pericytes regulate blood flow in the brain

10 June 2014

NPP scientists have discovered a new mechanism controlling blood flow in the brain.

Whereas it was previously thought that the brain's blood flow, and hence its energy supply, were controlled exclusively by smooth muscle around arterioles going into the brain, new research has shown that pericytes - contractile cells on pericytes (shown red in the picture below) - are in fact the main controllers of brain blood flow.

When neurons are active it is dilation of capillaries by these cells that is mainly responsible for increasing blood flow to provide more energy. This generates the functional imaging signals that allow researchers to investigate brain function non-invasively. Furthermore, after a clot occludes a blood vessel, causing a stroke, these cells constrict capillaries and die, further decreasing the energy supply to the brain and causing more neuronal damage. Consequently, prevention of pericyte constriction and death may become a therapeutic target after stroke. Similar mechanisms may operate in the heart.

Pericytes in the retina

Image: Pericytes (red) in the retina, extending processes along and around capillaries (green)

Credit: Clare Howarth, Claire Peppiatt and David Attwell, UCL

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