The discovery of endothelial-derived relaxing factor, and later nitric oxide (NO), as a biologically active substance led to intense focus on the vascular endothelium as a major site of physiological regulation and pathophysiological dysfunction. NO is clearly a potent vasodilator and plays a key role in establishing both whole body and regional "vascular tone". In this context, skeletal muscle and human skin have the remarkable capacity to increase their blood flow 50-100-fold and this increase is caused almost exclusively by local vasodilation. In general, the mechanisms responsible for these vasodilator phenomena have been poorly understood. In the early 1990s, investigators started to ask if NO might explain the "unexplained" vasodilator responses seen in skeletal muscle and skin. They also asked how "NO tone" interacted with "sympathetic tone" and whether NO can override the vasoconstrictor responses normally generated when sympathetic nerves release norepinephrine. Surprisingly, it was found that NO plays only a modest (non-obligatory) role in exercise hyperemia, reactive hyperemia and the neurally mediated rise in skin blood flow during whole body heat stress. By contrast, NO plays a major role in the skeletal muscle vasodilator responses to mental stress and the skin dilator responses to local heating. In animals, but not humans, NO can limit the ability of the sympathetic nerves to cause vasoconstriction in exercising muscles. Thus the role of NO in two of the most extreme dilator responses seen in nature is limited and in muscle the sympathetic nerves can restrain the dilation to defend arterial blood pressure.
- Endothelial function
- Muscle blood flow
- Skin blood flow
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine