Background: Nitric oxide (NO) is a potent vasodilator that was initially described as the mediator of endothelium-dependent relaxation (endothelium-derived relaxing factor, EDRF). It is now known that NO is produced by a variety of other cell types.
Summary of review: Endothelium produces NO (EDRF) under basal conditions and in response to a variety of vasoactive stimuli in large cerebral arteries and the cerebral microcirculation. Endothelium-dependent relaxation is impaired in the presence of several pathophysiological conditions. This impairment may contribute to cerebral ischemia or stroke. Activation of glutamate receptors appears to be a major stimulus for production of NO by neurons. Neuronally derived NO may mediate local increases in cerebral blood flow during increases in cerebral metabolism. NO synthase-containing neurons also innervate large cerebral arteries and cerebral arterioles on the brain surface. Activation of parasympathetic fibers that innervate cerebral vessels produces NO-dependent increases in cerebral blood flow. Increases in cerebral blood flow during hypercapnia also appear to be dependent on production of NO. Astrocytes may release some NO constitutively, but astrocytes and microglia can release relatively large quantities of NO after induction of NO synthase in response to endotoxin or some cytokines. Expression of inducible NO synthase, perhaps in response to local production of cytokines, may exert cytotoxic effects in brain during or after ischemia.
Conclusions: Because endothelium, neurons, and glia can all produce NO in response to some stimuli, the influence of NO on the cerebral circulation appears to be very important. Under normal conditions, constitutively produced NO influences basal cerebral vascular tone and mediates vascular responses to a diverse group of stimuli. The inducible form of NO synthase produces much greater amounts of NO that may be an important mediator of cytotoxicity in brain.