Because regional blood flow increases in association with the increased metabolic demand generated by localised increases in neural activity, functional imaging researchers often assume that changes in blood flow are an accurate read-out of changes in underlying neural activity. An understanding of the mechanisms that link changes in neural activity to changes in blood flow is crucial for assessing the validity of this assumption, and for understanding the processes that can go wrong during disease states such as ischaemic stroke. Many studies have investigated the mechanisms of neurovascular regulation in arterioles but other evidence suggests that blood flow regulation can also occur in capillaries, because of the presence of contractile cells, pericytes, on the capillary wall. Here we review the evidence that pericytes can modulate capillary diameter in response to neuronal activity and assess the likely importance of neurovascular regulation at the capillary level for functional imaging experiments. We also discuss evidence suggesting that pericytes are particularly sensitive to damage during pathological insults such as ischaemia, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetic retinopathy, and consider the potential impact that pericyte dysfunction might have on the development of therapeutic interventions and on the interpretation of functional imaging data in these disorders
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