Regulation of retinal blood flow in health and disease

Prog Retin Eye Res. 2008 May;27(3):284-330. doi: 10.1016/j.preteyeres.2008.02.002. Epub 2008 Feb 23.


Optimal retinal neuronal cell function requires an appropriate, tightly regulated environment, provided by cellular barriers, which separate functional compartments, maintain their homeostasis, and control metabolic substrate transport. Correctly regulated hemodynamics and delivery of oxygen and metabolic substrates, as well as intact blood-retinal barriers are necessary requirements for the maintenance of retinal structure and function. Retinal blood flow is autoregulated by the interaction of myogenic and metabolic mechanisms through the release of vasoactive substances by the vascular endothelium and retinal tissue surrounding the arteriolar wall. Autoregulation is achieved by adaptation of the vascular tone of the resistance vessels (arterioles, capillaries) to changes in the perfusion pressure or metabolic needs of the tissue. This adaptation occurs through the interaction of multiple mechanisms affecting the arteriolar smooth muscle cells and capillary pericytes. Mechanical stretch and increases in arteriolar transmural pressure induce the endothelial cells to release contracting factors affecting the tone of arteriolar smooth muscle cells and pericytes. Close interaction between nitric oxide (NO), lactate, arachidonic acid metabolites, released by the neuronal and glial cells during neural activity and energy-generating reactions of the retina strive to optimize blood flow according to the metabolic needs of the tissue. NO, which plays a central role in neurovascular coupling, may exert its effect, by modulating glial cell function involved in such vasomotor responses. During the evolution of ischemic microangiopathies, impairment of structure and function of the retinal neural tissue and endothelium affect the interaction of these metabolic pathways, leading to a disturbed blood flow regulation. The resulting ischemia, tissue hypoxia and alterations in the blood barrier trigger the formation of macular edema and neovascularization. Hypoxia-related VEGF expression correlates with the formation of neovessels. The relief from hypoxia results in arteriolar constriction, decreases the hydrostatic pressure in the capillaries and venules, and relieves endothelial stretching. The reestablished oxygenation of the inner retina downregulates VEGF expression and thus inhibits neovascularization and macular edema. Correct control of the multiple pathways, such as retinal blood flow, tissue oxygenation and metabolic substrate support, aiming at restoring retinal cell metabolic interactions, may be effective in preventing damage occurring during the evolution of ischemic microangiopathies.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Flow Velocity
  • Blood-Retinal Barrier / physiology
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Regional Blood Flow / physiology
  • Retina / physiology*
  • Retinal Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Retinal Vessels / physiology*


  • Oxygen