Role of the renal medulla in volume and arterial pressure regulation

Am J Physiol. 1997 Jul;273(1 Pt 2):R1-15. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.1997.273.1.R1.


The original fascination with the medullary circulation of the kidney was driven by the unique structure of vasa recta capillary circulation, which Berliner and colleagues (Berliner, R. W., N. G. Levinsky, D. G. Davidson, and M. Eden. Am. J. Med. 24: 730-744, 1958) demonstrated could provide the economy of countercurrent exchange to concentrate large volumes of blood filtrate and produce small volumes of concentrated urine. We now believe we have found another equally important function of the renal medullary circulation. The data show that it is indeed the forces defined by Starling 100 years ago that are responsible for the pressure-natriuresis mechanisms through the transmission of changes of renal perfusion pressure to the vasa recta circulation. Despite receiving only 5-10% of the total renal blood flow, increases of blood flow to this region of the kidney cause a washout of the medullary urea gradient and a rise of the renal interstitial fluid pressure. These forces reduce tubular reabsorption of sodium and water, leading to a natriuresis and diuresis. Many of Starling's intrinsic chemicals, which he named "hormones," importantly modulate this pressure-natriuresis response by altering both the sensitivity and range of arterial pressure around which these responses occur. The vasculature of the renal medulla is uniquely sensitive to many of these vasoactive agents. Finally, we have found that the renal medullary circulation can play an important role in determining the level of arterial pressure required to achieve long-term fluid and electrolyte homeostasis by establishing the slope and set point of the pressure-natriuresis relationship. Measurable decreases of blood flow to the renal medulla with imperceptible changes of total renal blood flow can lead to the development of hypertension. Many questions remain, and it is now evident that this is a very complex regulatory system. It appears, however, that the medullary blood flow is a potent determinant of both sodium and water excretion and signals changes in blood volume and arterial pressure to the tubules via the physical forces that Professor Starling so clearly defined 100 years ago.

Publication types

  • Lecture
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Pressure*
  • Blood Volume
  • Capillaries / physiology
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / physiopathology*
  • Kidney Medulla / blood supply
  • Kidney Medulla / physiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Renal Circulation*