Influence of high altitude on cerebrovascular and ventilatory responsiveness to CO2

J.-L. Fan, K.N. Thomas, K.C. Peebles, S.J.E. Lucas, R.A.I. Lucas, J. Donnelly, K.R. Burgess, R. Basnyat, J.D. Cotter, P.N. Ainslie

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80 Citations (Scopus)


An altered acid–base balance following ascent to high altitude has been well established. Such changes in pH buffering could potentially account for the observed increase in ventilatory CO2 sensitivity at high altitude. Likewise, if [H+] is the main determinant of cerebrovascular tone, then an alteration in pH buffering may also enhance the cerebral blood flow (CBF) responsiveness to CO2 (termed cerebrovascular CO2 reactivity). However, the effect altered acid–base balance associated with high altitude ascent on cerebrovascular and ventilatory responsiveness to CO2 remains unclear. We measured ventilation (V̇E), middle cerebral artery velocity (MCAv; index of CBF) and arterial blood gases at sea level and following ascent to 5050 m in 17 healthy participants during modified hyperoxic rebreathing. At 5050 m, resting V̇E, MCAv and pH were higher (P < 0.01), while bicarbonate concentration and partial pressures of arterial O2 and CO2 were lower (P < 0.01) compared to sea level. Ascent to 5050 m also increased the hypercapnic MCAv CO2 reactivity (2.9 ± 1.1 vs. 4.8 ± 1.4% mmHg−1; P < 0.01) and V̇E CO2 sensitivity (3.6 ± 2.3 vs. 5.1 ± 1.7 l min−1 mmHg−1; P < 0.01). Likewise, the hypocapnic MCAv CO2 reactivity was increased at 5050 m (4.2 ± 1.0 vs. 2.0 ± 0.6% mmHg−1; P < 0.01). The hypercapnic MCAv CO2 reactivity correlated with resting pH at high altitude (R2= 0.4; P < 0.01) while the central chemoreflex threshold correlated with bicarbonate concentration (R2= 0.7; P < 0.01). These findings indicate that (1) ascent to high altitude increases the ventilatory CO2 sensitivity and elevates the cerebrovascular responsiveness to hypercapnia and hypocapnia, and (2) alterations in cerebrovascular CO2 reactivity and central chemoreflex may be partly attributed to an acid–base balance associated with high altitude ascent. Collectively, our findings provide new insights into the influence of high altitude on cerebrovascular function and highlight the potential role of alterations in acid–base balance in the regulation in CBF and ventilatory control.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)539-549
Number of pages11
JournalThe Journal of Physiology
Issue number3
Early online date29 Jan 2010
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2010


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