Regulation of blood flow and volume exchange across the microcirculation

Crit Care. 2016 Oct 21;20(1):319. doi: 10.1186/s13054-016-1485-0.


Oxygen delivery to cells is the basic prerequisite of life. Within the human body, an ingenious oxygen delivery system, comprising steps of convection and diffusion from the upper airways via the lungs and the cardiovascular system to the microvascular area, bridges the gap between oxygen in the outside airspace and the interstitial space around the cells. However, the complexity of this evolutionary development makes us prone to pathophysiological problems. While those problems related to respiration and macrohemodynamics have already been successfully addressed by modern medicine, the pathophysiology of the microcirculation is still often a closed book in daily practice. Nevertheless, here as well, profound physiological understanding is the only key to rational therapeutic decisions. The prime guarantor of tissue oxygenation is tissue blood flow. Therefore, on the premise of intact macrohemodynamics, the microcirculation has three major responsibilities: 1) providing access for oxygenated blood to the tissues and appropriate return of volume; 2) maintaining global tissue flood flow, even in the face of changes in central blood pressure; and 3) linking local blood flow to local metabolic needs. It is an intriguing concept of nature to do this mainly by local regulatory mechanisms, impacting primarily on flow resistance, be this via endothelial or direct smooth muscle actions. The final goal of microvascular blood flow per unit of time is to ensure the needed exchange of substances between tissue and blood compartments. The two principle means of accomplishing this are diffusion and filtration. While simple diffusion is the quantitatively most important form of capillary exchange activity for the respiratory gases, water flux across the blood-brain barrier is facilitated via preformed specialized channels, the aquaporines. Beyond that, the vascular barrier is practically nowhere completely tight for water, with paracellular filtration giving rise to generally low but permanent fluid flux outwards into the interstitial space at the microvascular high pressure segment. At the more leaky venular aspect, both filtration and diffusion allow for bidirectional passage of water, nutrients, and waste products. We are just beginning to appreciate that a major factor for maintaining tissue fluid homeostasis appears to be the integrity of the endothelial glycocalyx.

Keywords: Blood flow; Blood vessels; Endothelium; Glycocalyx; Microcirculation; Tissue oxygenation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Flow Velocity / physiology*
  • Blood Volume / physiology*
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / physiology
  • Glycocalyx / physiology
  • Hemodynamics / physiology
  • Humans
  • Microcirculation / physiology*
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology*