The precise regulation of cerebral blood flow is critical for normal brain function, and its disruption underlies many neuropathologies. The extent to which smooth muscle-covered arterioles or pericyte-covered capillaries control vasomotion during neurovascular coupling remains controversial. We found that capillary pericytes in mice and humans do not express smooth muscle actin and are morphologically and functionally distinct from adjacent precapillary smooth muscle cells (SMCs). Using optical imaging we investigated blood flow regulation at various sites on the vascular tree in living mice. Optogenetic, whisker stimulation, or cortical spreading depolarization caused microvascular diameter or flow changes in SMC but not pericyte-covered microvessels. During early stages of brain ischemia, transient SMC but not pericyte constrictions were a major cause of hypoperfusion leading to thrombosis and distal microvascular occlusions. Thus, capillary pericytes are not contractile, and regulation of cerebral blood flow in physiological and pathological conditions is mediated by arteriolar SMCs.
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