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Blood flow, capillary transit times, and tissue oxygenation: The centennial of capillary recruitment

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The transport of oxygen between blood and tissue is limited by blood’s capillary transit time, understood as the time available for diffusion exchange before blood returns to the heart. If all capillaries contribute equally to tissue oxygenation at all times, this physical limitation would render vasodilation and increased blood flow insufficient means to meet increased metabolic demands in the heart, muscle, and other organs. In 1920, Danish physiologist August Krogh was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his mathematical and quantitative, experimental demonstration of a solution to this conceptual problem: capillary recruitment, the active opening of previously closed capillaries to meet metabolic demands. Today, capillary recruitment is still mentioned in textbooks. When we suspect symptoms might represent hypoxia of a vascular origin, however, we search for relevant, flow-limiting conditions in our patients and rarely ascribe hypoxia or hypoxemia to short capillary transit times. This review describes how natural changes in capillary transit-time heterogeneity (CTH) and capillary hematocrit (HCT) across open capillaries during blood flow increases can account for a match of oxygen availability to metabolic demands in normal tissue. CTH and HCT depend on a number of factors: on blood properties, including plasma viscosity, the number, size, and deformability of blood cells, and blood cell interactions with capillary endothelium; on anatomical factors including glycocalyx, endothelial cells, basement membrane, and pericytes that affect the capillary diameter; and on any external compression. The review describes how risk factor- and disease-related changes in CTH and HCT interfere with flow-metabolism coupling and tissue oxygenation and discusses whether such capillary dysfunction contributes to vascular disease pathology.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Pages (from-to)1413-1421
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 11 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2020 The Author

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

    Research areas

  • Alzheimer’s disease, Capillary transit-time heterogeneity, COVID-19, Oxygen transport, Sickle cell disease

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