Parasympathetic withdrawal increases heart rate after 2 weeks at 3454 m altitude

Christoph Siebenmann, Peter Rasmussen, Mike Hug, Stefanie Keiser, Daniela Flück, James P Fisher, Matthias P Hilty, Marco Maggiorini, Carsten Lundby

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KEY POINTS: Heart rate is increased in chronic hypoxia and we tested whether this is the result of increased sympathetic nervous activity, reduced parasympathetic nervous activity, or a non-autonomic mechanism. In seven lowlanders, heart rate was measured at sea level and after 2 weeks at high altitude after individual and combined pharmacological inhibition of sympathetic and/or parasympathetic control of the heart. Inhibition of parasympathetic control of the heart alone or in combination with inhibition of sympathetic control abolished the high altitude-induced increase in heart rate. Inhibition of sympathetic control of the heart alone did not prevent the high altitude-induced increase in heart rate. These results indicate that a reduced parasympathetic nervous activity is the main mechanism underlying the elevated heart rate in chronic hypoxia.

ABSTRACT: Chronic hypoxia increases resting heart rate (HR), but the underlying mechanism remains incompletely understood. We investigated the relative contributions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, along with potential non-autonomic mechanisms, by individual and combined pharmacological inhibition of muscarinic and/or β-adrenergic receptors. In seven healthy lowlanders, resting HR was determined at sea level (SL) and after 15-18 days of exposure to 3454 m high altitude (HA) without drug intervention (control, CONT) as well as after intravenous administration of either propranolol (PROP), or glycopyrrolate (GLYC), or PROP and GLYC in combination (PROP+GLYC). Circulating noradrenaline concentration increased from 0.9 ± 0.4 nmol l(-1) at SL to 2.7 ± 1.5 nmol l(-1) at HA (P = 0.03). The effect of HA on HR depended on the type of autonomic inhibition (P = 0.006). Specifically, HR was increased at HA from 64 ± 10 to 74 ± 12 beats min(-1) during the CONT treatment (P = 0.007) and from 52 ± 4 to 59 ± 5 beats min(-1) during the PROP treatment (P < 0.001). In contrast, HR was similar between SL and HA during the GLYC treatment (110 ± 7 and 112 ± 5 beats min(-1) , P = 0.28) and PROP+GLYC treatment (83 ± 5 and 85 ± 5 beats min(-1) , P = 0.25). Our results identify a reduction in cardiac parasympathetic activity as the primary mechanism underlying the elevated HR associated with 2 weeks of exposure to hypoxia. Unexpectedly, the sympathoactivation at HA that was evidenced by increased circulating noradrenaline concentration had little effect on HR, potentially reflecting down-regulation of cardiac β-adrenergic receptor function in chronic hypoxia. These effects of chronic hypoxia on autonomic control of the heart may concern not only HA dwellers, but also patients with disorders that are associated with hypoxaemia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1619-1626
Number of pages8
JournalThe Journal of Physiology
Issue number5
Early online date24 Jan 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017


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