Atherosclerosis, in turn preceded by endothelial dysfunction, underlies a series of important cardiovascular diseases. Reduced bioavailability of endothelial nitric oxide, by increasing vascular tone and promoting platelet aggregation, leukocyte adhesion, and smooth muscle cell proliferation, plays a key role in the onset of the majority of cardiovascular diseases. In addition, high blood levels of asymmetric dimethylarginine, a potent inhibitor of nitric oxide synthesis, are associated with future development of adverse cardiovascular events and cardiac death. Recent reports have demonstrated that another methylarginine, i.e., symmetric dimethylarginine, is also involved in the onset of endothelial dysfunction and hypertension. Almost a decade ago, prematurity at birth and intrauterine growth retardation were first associated with a potential negative influence on the cardiovascular apparatus, thus constituting risk factors or leading to early onset of cardiovascular diseases. This condition is referred to as cardiovascular perinatal programming. Accordingly, cardiovascular morbidity and mortality are higher among former preterm adults than in those born at term. The aim of this paper was to undertake a comprehensive literature review focusing on cellular and biochemical mechanisms resulting in both reduced nitric oxide bioavailability and increased methylarginine levels in subjects born preterm. Evidence of the involvement of these compounds in the perinatal programming of cardiovascular risk are also discussed.
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