Purpose of review: This article reviews the physiological and pathophysiological effects of anaemia on the brain, focusing on the hypothesis that anaemia-induced cerebral hypoxia contributes to anaemic cerebral dysfunction and injury. It also reviews evidence that the regulated increase in cerebral blood flow observed during anaemia represents a compensatory neuroprotective mechanism invoked to optimize cerebral oxygen delivery, thereby protecting the brain from hypoxic injury.
Recent findings: Severe anaemia, or low haematocrit, has been associated with cognitive dysfunction, impaired cerebral vascular regulation, neurological injury, and increased mortality, which suggests that the brain is vulnerable to anaemia-induced injury. Reduced cerebral tissue oxygen tension has been measured directly at haemoglobin concentrations near 35 g/l, suggesting that hypoxia may contribute to anaemic cerebral injury. A demonstration of increased hypoxic cerebral gene expression, including neuronal nitric oxide synthase, may provide a more sensitive means of determining the minimum haemoglobin concentration at which anaemia-induced cerebral hypoxia can be detected. The measurement of increased cerebral cortical neuronal nitric oxide synthase messenger RNA and protein levels in rats, at haemoglobin concentrations between 50 and 60 g/l, suggests that cerebral hypoxia occurred at these higher haemoglobin concentrations. Mechanisms regulating anaemic cerebral vasodilation and increased cerebral oxygen delivery, including nitric oxide, require further elucidation to establish their role in protecting the brain during anaemia.
Summary: Characterization of mechanisms of anaemia-induced cerebral injury will contribute to the development of optimal therapeutic strategies for anaemic patients. Such strategies would include a clearer definition of transfusion triggers based on physiological endpoints. The overall goal of these efforts would be to minimize morbidity and mortality associated with anaemia.