The endothelium plays a crucial role in the control of vascular homoeostasis through maintaining the synthesis of the vasoprotective molecule NO (nitric oxide). Endothelial dysfunction of cerebral blood vessels, manifested as diminished NO bioavailability, is a common feature of several vascular-related diseases, including hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, stroke, subarachnoid haemorrhage and Alzheimer's disease. Over the past several years an enormous amount of research has been devoted to understanding the mechanisms underlying endothelial dysfunction. As such, it has become apparent that, although the diseases associated with impaired NO function are diverse, the underlying causes are similar. For example, compelling evidence indicates that oxidative stress might be an important mechanism of diminished NO signalling in diverse models of cardiovascular ‘high-risk’ states and cerebrovascular disease. Although there are several sources of vascular ROS (reactive oxygen species), the enzyme NADPH oxidase is emerging as a strong candidate for the excessive ROS production that is thought to lead to vascular oxidative stress. The purpose of the present review is to outline some of the mechanisms thought to contribute to endothelial dysfunction in the cerebral vasculature during disease. More specifically, we will highlight current evidence for the involvement of ROS, inflammation, the RhoA/Rho-kinase pathway and amyloid β-peptides. In addition, we will discuss currently available therapies for improving endothelial function and highlight future therapeutic strategies.

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