The role of shear stress in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis

Lab Invest. 2005 Jan;85(1):9-23. doi: 10.1038/labinvest.3700215.


Although the pathobiology of atherosclerosis is a complex multifactorial process, blood flow-induced shear stress has emerged as an essential feature of atherogenesis. This fluid drag force acting on the vessel wall is mechanotransduced into a biochemical signal that results in changes in vascular behavior. Maintenance of a physiologic, laminar shear stress is known to be crucial for normal vascular functioning, which includes the regulation of vascular caliber as well as inhibition of proliferation, thrombosis and inflammation of the vessel wall. Thus, shear stress is atheroprotective. It is also recognized that disturbed or oscillatory flows near arterial bifurcations, branch ostia and curvatures are associated with atheroma formation. Additionally, vascular endothelium has been shown to have different behavioral responses to altered flow patterns both at the molecular and cellular levels and these reactions are proposed to promote atherosclerosis in synergy with other well-defined systemic risk factors. Nonlaminar flow promotes changes to endothelial gene expression, cytoskeletal arrangement, wound repair, leukocyte adhesion as well as to the vasoreactive, oxidative and inflammatory states of the artery wall. Disturbed shear stress also influences the site selectivity of atherosclerotic plaque formation as well as its associated vessel wall remodeling, which can affect plaque vulnerability, stent restenosis and smooth muscle cell intimal hyperplasia in venous bypass grafts. Thus, shear stress is critically important in regulating the atheroprotective, normal physiology as well as the pathobiology and dysfunction of the vessel wall through complex molecular mechanisms that promote atherogenesis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arteriosclerosis / etiology*
  • Arteriosclerosis / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Shear Strength*
  • Stress, Mechanical*