The neurovascular unit in brain function and disease

Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2011 Sep;203(1):47-59. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-1716.2011.02256.x. Epub 2011 Mar 22.


Neurovascular coupling, or functional hyperaemia, refers to complex mechanisms of communication between neurons, astrocytes and cerebral vessels which form the neurovascular unit that spatially and temporally adjusts blood supply to the needs in energy and oxygen of activated neurons. Neurovascular coupling is so precise that it underlies neuroimaging techniques to map changes in neuronal activity. Therefore, understanding its basis is indispensable for the proper interpretation of imaging signals from functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography, routinely used in humans. Although neurovascular coupling mechanisms are not yet fully understood, considerable progress has been made over the last decade. In this review, we present recent knowledge from in vivo studies on the cortical cellular network involved in neurovascular coupling responses and the mediators implicated in these haemodynamic changes. Recent findings have emphasized the intricate interplay between both excitatory and inhibitory neurons in neurovascular coupling, together with an intermediary role of astrocytes, which are ideally positioned between neurons and microvessels. Finally, we describe latest findings on the alterations of neurovascular function encountered in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / physiology
  • Brain / blood supply*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology*
  • Hemodynamics / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Neurons / physiology