Regulation of Blood Flow in the Microcirculation



    Corresponding author
    1. The John B. Pierce Laboratory & Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
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  • The author's research is supported by the Unites States Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health grants RO1-HL41026, RO1-HL56786, and R21-AG19347. The contributions of Tonya Jacobs and Shawn Bearden to acquiring Figures 1 and 2 are gratefully acknowledged.

Address correspondence to STEVEN S. SEGAL, 290 Congress Ave, New Haven, CT, 06519, USA. E-mail:


The regulation of blood flow has rich history of investigation and is exemplified in exercising skeletal muscle by a concerted interaction between striated muscle fibers and their microvascular supply. This review considers blood flow control in light of the regulation of capillary perfusion by and among terminal arterioles, the distribution of blood flow in arteriolar networks according to metabolic and hemodynamic feedback from active muscle fibers, and the balance between peak muscle blood flow and arterial blood pressure by sympathetic nerve activity. As metabolic demand increases, the locus of regulating oxygen delivery to muscle fibers “ascends” from terminal arterioles, through intermediate distributing arterioles, and into the proximal arterioles and feed arteries, which govern total flow into a muscle. At multiple levels, venules are positioned to provide feedback to nearby arterioles regarding the metabolic state of the tissue through the convection and production of vasodilator stimuli. Electrical signals initiated on smooth muscle and endothelial cells can travel rapidly for millimeters through cell-to-cell conduction via gap junction channels, rapidly coordinating vasodilator responses that govern the distribution and magnitude of blood flow to active muscle fibers. Sympathetic constriction of proximal arterioles and feed arteries can restrict functional hyperemia while dilation prevails in distal arterioles to promote oxygen extraction. With vasomotor tone reflecting myogenic contraction of smooth muscle cells modulated by flow-induced vasodilator production by endothelium, the initiation of functional vasodilation and its modulation by shear stress and sympathetic innervation dictate how and where blood flow is distributed in microvascular networks. A remarkable ensemble of signaling pathways underlie the integration of smooth muscle and endothelial cell function in microvascular networks. These pathways are being defined with new insight as novel approaches are applied to understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms of blood flow control.