Regulation of cerebral blood flow during exercise

Sports Med. 2007;37(9):765-82. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200737090-00002.


Constant cerebral blood flow (CBF) is vital to human survival. Originally thought to receive steady blood flow, the brain has shown to experience increases in blood flow during exercise. Although increases have not consistently been documented, the overwhelming evidence supporting an increase may be a result of an increase in brain metabolism. While an increase in metabolism may be the underlying causative factor for the increase in CBF during exercise, there are many modulating variables. Arterial blood gas tensions, most specifically the partial pressure of carbon dioxide, strongly regulate CBF by affecting cerebral vessel diameter through changes in pH, while carbon dioxide reactivity increases from rest to exercise. Muscle mechanoreceptors may contribute to the initial increase in CBF at the onset of exercise, after which exercise-induced hyperventilation tends to decrease flow by pial vessel vasoconstriction. Although elite athletes may benefit from hyperoxia during intense exercise, cerebral tissue is well protected during exercise, and cerebral oxygenation does not appear to pose a limiting factor to exercise performance. The role of arterial blood pressure is important to the increase in CBF during exercise; however, during times of acute hypotension such as during diastole at high-intensity exercise or post-exercise hypotension, cerebral autoregulation may be impaired. The impairment of an increase in cardiac output during exercise with a large muscle mass similarly impairs the increase in CBF velocity, suggesting that cardiac output may play a key role in the CBF response to exercise. Glucose uptake and CBF do not appear to be related; however, there is growing evidence to suggest that lactate is used as a substrate when glucose levels are low. Traditionally thought to have no influence, neural innervation appears to be a protective mechanism to large increases in cardiac output. Changes in middle cerebral arterial velocity are independent of changes in muscle sympathetic nerve activity, suggesting that sympathetic activity does not alter medium-sized arteries (middle cerebral artery).CBF does not remain steady, as seen by apparent increases during exercise, which is accomplished by a multi-factorial system, operating in a way that does not pose any clear danger to cerebral tissue during exercise under normal circumstances.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Hemodynamics
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans