Cortical spreading depression (CSD) leads to dramatic changes in cerebral hemodynamics. However, mechanisms involved in promoting and counteracting cerebral vasodilator responses are unclear. Here we review the development and current status of this important field of research especially with respect to the role of perivascular nerves and nitric oxide (NO). It appears that neurotransmitters released from the sensory and the parasympathetic nerves associated with cerebral arteries, and NO released from perivascular nerves and/or parenchyma, promote cerebral hyperemia during CSD. However, the relative contributions of each of these factors vary according to species studied. Related to CSD, axonal and reflex responses involving trigeminal afferents on the pial surface lead to increased blood flow and inflammation of the overlying dura mater. Counteracting the cerebral vascular dilation is the production and release of constrictor prostaglandins, at least in some species, and other possibly yet unknown agents from the vascular wall. The cerebral blood flow response in healthy human cortex has not been determined, and thus it is unclear whether the cerebral oligemia associated with migraines represents the normal physiological response to a CSD-like event or represents a pathological response. In addition to promoting cerebral hyperemia, NO produced during CSD appears to initiate signaling events which lead to protection of the brain against subsequent ischemic insults. In summary, the cerebrovascular response to CSD involves multiple dilator and constrictor factors produced and released by diverse cells within the neurovascular unit, with the contribution of each of these factors varying according to the species examined.
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