There is evidence that tissue blood flow is regulated by retrograde transmission of signals initiated at capillary and post-capillary sites, and transmitted via the endothelium to modulate pre-capillary resistance. We have used pre-eclampsia as a model to test the hypothesis that normal endothelium is required to enable adjustment of blood flow to match tissue requirements. Integrity of the endothelial pathway was assessed by measuring calf blood flow at increasing venous pressures, using an established small cumulative-step venous-congestion plethysmography protocol in ten women with pre-eclampsia, 17 normal pregnant controls and ten non-pregnant women. Endothelial cell activation was assessed by measuring plasma levels of the cell adhesion molecules, intercellular cell-adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1), vascular cell-adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) and E-selectin. Baseline calf blood flow was significantly lower in pre-eclampsia than in the other two groups (P<0.0001; ANOVA). In the pre-eclampsia group, there was a fall in blood flow as venous congestion pressure was raised (P<0.0001; ANOVA). No such change was observed in the other two groups. A significant inverse correlation was observed between the reduction in blood flow in pre-eclampsia and the levels of E-selectin (r=-0.92, P=0.0002), VCAM-1 (r=-0.93, P=0.0008) and ICAM-1 (r=-0.86, P=0.001). The differences between the pre-eclamptic women and the other two groups support the notion that the failure to sustain blood flow during a cumulative pressure step protocol in the pre-eclamptic group might be influenced by interference with the retrograde transmission of signals via the endothelium in these patients.

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