Histology and Histopathology, vol.36, no.6, pp.633-643, 2021 (SCI-Expanded)
©The Author(s) 2021.Summary. The proper delivery of blood is essential for healthy neuronal function. The anatomical substrate for this precise mechanism is the neurovascular unit, which is formed by neurons, glial cells, endothelia, smooth muscle cells, and pericytes. Based on their particular location on the vessel wall, morphology, and protein expression, pericytes have been proposed as cells capable of regulating capillary blood flow. Pericytes are located around the microvessels, wrapping them with their processes. Their morphology and protein expression substantially vary along the vascular tree. Their contractibility is mediated by a unique cytoskeleton organization formed by filaments of actin that allows pericyte deformability with the consequent mechanical force transferred to the extracellular matrix for changing the diameter. Pericyte ultrastructure is characterized by large mitochondria likely to provide energy to regulate intracellular calcium concentration and fuel contraction. Accordingly, pericytes with compromised energy show a sustained intracellular calcium increase that leads to persistent microvascular constriction. Pericyte morphology is highly plastic and adapted for varying contractile capability along the microvascular tree, making pericytes ideal cells to regulate the capillary blood flow in response to local neuronal activity. Besides the vascular regulation, pericytes also play a role in the maintenance of the blood-brain/retina barrier, neovascularization and angiogenesis, and leukocyte transmigration. Here, we review the morphological and functional features of the pericytes as well as potential specific markers for the study of pericytes in the brain and retina.