Neurovascular coupling: Brain and arteries, working together

The brain is a demanding beast. It consumes about a fifth of the body’s energy but cannot store any, so it needs constant and carefully timed nourishment from the cardiovascular system. To keep it happy, “neurovascular coupling” rapidly increases blood flow to areas of heightened neural activity – a process that is impaired in conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite its importance, it has been unclear how the brain and blood vessels communicate to enable neurovascular coupling. 

Now, in a study published in the journal Nature, neuroscientists from Harvard Medical School, US, report the discovery of a control mechanism in the brains of mice that ensures adequate blood flow to areas of heightened neural activity in a rapid and precise manner.

Experiments reveal that arteries in the brain actively regulate neurovascular coupling in response to neural activity, and that the protein Mfsd2a, previously implicated as a key regulator of the protective blood-brain barrier, is critical for this process. 

“We now have a firm handle on the mechanisms involved in neurovascular coupling, including its molecular, cellular and subcellular components, which we’ve never had before,” says senior author Chenghua Gu.

“This puts us in a position to dissect this process and determine, for example, whether the neurovascular coupling impairments that we see in diseases like Alzheimer’s are the result of a pathology or the cause.”

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