Measuring cerebrovascular reactivity: what stimulus to use?

J Physiol. 2013 Dec 1;591(23):5809-21. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2013.259150. Epub 2013 Sep 30.


Cerebrovascular reactivity is the change in cerebral blood flow in response to a vasodilatory or vasoconstrictive stimulus. Measuring variations of cerebrovascular reactivity between different regions of the brain has the potential to not only advance understanding of how the cerebral vasculature controls the distribution of blood flow but also to detect cerebrovascular pathophysiology. While there are standardized and repeatable methods for estimating the changes in cerebral blood flow in response to a vasoactive stimulus, the same cannot be said for the stimulus itself. Indeed, the wide variety of vasoactive challenges currently employed in these studies impedes comparisons between them. This review therefore critically examines the vasoactive stimuli in current use for their ability to provide a standard repeatable challenge and for the practicality of their implementation. Such challenges include induced reductions in systemic blood pressure, and the administration of vasoactive substances such as acetazolamide and carbon dioxide. We conclude that many of the stimuli in current use do not provide a standard stimulus comparable between individuals and in the same individual over time. We suggest that carbon dioxide is the most suitable vasoactive stimulus. We describe recently developed computer-controlled MRI compatible gas delivery systems which are capable of administering reliable and repeatable vasoactive CO2 stimuli.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / blood supply
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypercapnia / physiopathology
  • Vasodilation / physiology