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Physiol Rev. 2008 Jul;88(3):1009-86. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00045.2006.

Regulation of coronary blood flow during exercise.

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Division of Experimental Cardiology, Department of Cardiology, Thoraxcenter, Cardiovascular Research Institute COEUR, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.


Exercise is the most important physiological stimulus for increased myocardial oxygen demand. The requirement of exercising muscle for increased blood flow necessitates an increase in cardiac output that results in increases in the three main determinants of myocardial oxygen demand: heart rate, myocardial contractility, and ventricular work. The approximately sixfold increase in oxygen demands of the left ventricle during heavy exercise is met principally by augmenting coronary blood flow (~5-fold), as hemoglobin concentration and oxygen extraction (which is already 70-80% at rest) increase only modestly in most species. In contrast, in the right ventricle, oxygen extraction is lower at rest and increases substantially during exercise, similar to skeletal muscle, suggesting fundamental differences in blood flow regulation between these two cardiac chambers. The increase in heart rate also increases the relative time spent in systole, thereby increasing the net extravascular compressive forces acting on the microvasculature within the wall of the left ventricle, in particular in its subendocardial layers. Hence, appropriate adjustment of coronary vascular resistance is critical for the cardiac response to exercise. Coronary resistance vessel tone results from the culmination of myriad vasodilator and vasoconstrictors influences, including neurohormones and endothelial and myocardial factors. Unraveling of the integrative mechanisms controlling coronary vasodilation in response to exercise has been difficult, in part due to the redundancies in coronary vasomotor control and differences between animal species. Exercise training is associated with adaptations in the coronary microvasculature including increased arteriolar densities and/or diameters, which provide a morphometric basis for the observed increase in peak coronary blood flow rates in exercise-trained animals. In larger animals trained by treadmill exercise, the formation of new capillaries maintains capillary density at a level commensurate with the degree of exercise-induced physiological myocardial hypertrophy. Nevertheless, training alters the distribution of coronary vascular resistance so that more capillaries are recruited, resulting in an increase in the permeability-surface area product without a change in capillary numerical density. Maintenance of alpha- and ss-adrenergic tone in the presence of lower circulating catecholamine levels appears to be due to increased receptor responsiveness to adrenergic stimulation. Exercise training also alters local control of coronary resistance vessels. Thus arterioles exhibit increased myogenic tone, likely due to a calcium-dependent protein kinase C signaling-mediated alteration in voltage-gated calcium channel activity in response to stretch. Conversely, training augments endothelium-dependent vasodilation throughout the coronary microcirculation. This enhanced responsiveness appears to result principally from an increased expression of nitric oxide (NO) synthase. Finally, physical conditioning decreases extravascular compressive forces at rest and at comparable levels of exercise, mainly because of a decrease in heart rate. Impedance to coronary inflow due to an epicardial coronary artery stenosis results in marked redistribution of myocardial blood flow during exercise away from the subendocardium towards the subepicardium. However, in contrast to the traditional view that myocardial ischemia causes maximal microvascular dilation, more recent studies have shown that the coronary microvessels retain some degree of vasodilator reserve during exercise-induced ischemia and remain responsive to vasoconstrictor stimuli. These observations have required reassessment of the principal sites of resistance to blood flow in the microcirculation. A significant fraction of resistance is located in small arteries that are outside the metabolic control of the myocardium but are sensitive to shear and nitrovasodilators. The coronary collateral system embodies a dynamic network of interarterial vessels that can undergo both long- and short-term adjustments that can modulate blood flow to the dependent myocardium. Long-term adjustments including recruitment and growth of collateral vessels in response to arterial occlusion are time dependent and determine the maximum blood flow rates available to the collateral-dependent vascular bed during exercise. Rapid short-term adjustments result from active vasomotor activity of the collateral vessels. Mature coronary collateral vessels are responsive to vasodilators such as nitroglycerin and atrial natriuretic peptide, and to vasoconstrictors such as vasopressin, angiotensin II, and the platelet products serotonin and thromboxane A(2). During exercise, ss-adrenergic activity and endothelium-derived NO and prostanoids exert vasodilator influences on coronary collateral vessels. Importantly, alterations in collateral vasomotor tone, e.g., by exogenous vasopressin, inhibition of endogenous NO or prostanoid production, or increasing local adenosine production can modify collateral conductance, thereby influencing the blood supply to the dependent myocardium. In addition, vasomotor activity in the resistance vessels of the collateral perfused vascular bed can influence the volume and distribution of blood flow within the collateral zone. Finally, there is evidence that vasomotor control of resistance vessels in the normally perfused regions of collateralized hearts is altered, indicating that the vascular adaptations in hearts with a flow-limiting coronary obstruction occur at a global as well as a regional level. Exercise training does not stimulate growth of coronary collateral vessels in the normal heart. However, if exercise produces ischemia, which would be absent or minimal under resting conditions, there is evidence that collateral growth can be enhanced. In addition to ischemia, the pressure gradient between vascular beds, which is a determinant of the flow rate and therefore the shear stress on the collateral vessel endothelium, may also be important in stimulating growth of collateral vessels.

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