The functions of the endothelium and the effects of hypertension, atherosclerosis, and diabetes on the endothelium are reviewed. The endothelium affects vascular tone by releasing vasodilators and modulating the effects of vasoactive substances such as catecholamines, bradykinin, serotonin, and angiotensin II. Relaxation of vascular smooth muscle depends upon a functionally intact endothelium and the release of the endothelium-derived relaxing factor nitric oxide. Endothelial cells also appear to release a hyperpolarizaing factor that relaxes smooth muscle through activation of the sodium-potassium pump, and of the endothelium-dependent contracting factors. Similarities are found in the vascular injury resulting from hypertension, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. When these risk factors coexist, they can act synergistically and magnify the vascular injury. The endothelium appears to be one of the major targets for these forms of injury. Future therapeutic strategies will focus on ways to prevent, arrest, or reverse endothelial injury.
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