Neonatal tolerance to hypoxia: a comparative-physiological approach

Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 1999 Jul;123(3):221-34. doi: 10.1016/s1095-6433(99)00057-4.


Newborn mammals exhibit a number of physiological reactions which differ from normal adult physiology and are often regarded as signs of immaturity. However, when looked upon from a comparative point of view, it becomes obvious that some of these 'physiological peculiarities' bear striking similarity to adaptation mechanisms known from hypoxia-tolerant animals and may thus contribute to the well-established, yet poorly understood, phenomenon of neonatal hypoxia tolerance. As the mammalian fetus lives at oxygen partial pressures corresponding to 8000 m altitude, the first line of perinatal hypoxia defense consists of long-term adaptations to limited intrauterine oxygen supply: (1) improved O2 transport by fetal acclimatization to high altitude, (2) reduced metabolic rate by hibernation-like deviation from metabolic size allometry, (3) diminished cerebral vulnerability by functional analogies to diving turtle brain, and (4) enhanced metabolic flexibility by optional repartitioning of energy supply from growth to maintenance metabolism. In the case of birth asphyxia, these background mechanisms are complemented by short-term responses to acute oxygen lack: (1) reduction of body temperature as in natural torpor, (2) reduction of heart rate and redistribution of circulation as in diving mammals, (3) reduction of respiration rate typical of 'hypoxic hypometabolism', and (4) reduction of blood pH according to the concept of 'acidotic torpidity'. Although anaerobic metabolism is improved in neonatal mammals by increased glycogen stores, reduced metabolic demands, and sustained wash-out of acid metabolites, neonatal hypoxia tolerance seems to be primarily based on the ability to maintain tissue aerobiosis as long as possible. This is even reflected by isoenzyme patterns which do not consistently favour anaerobic glycolysis and, thus, are reminiscent of the 'lactate paradox' found in high altitude adaptation. Altogether, from a biological point of view, the perinatal period appears as a source of adaptive mechanisms that can be refound, in varying combinations, in many survival strategies. From a clinical point of view, the interplay of long- and short-term mechanisms offers a novel approach to estimation of the newborn's ability to withstand temporary oxygen lack. However, most of these mechanisms are not unambiguous and, above all, not unlimited in their protective effect so that they do not release obstetricians or neonatologists from their obligation to counteract fetal or neonatal hypoxia without delay.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / physiology*
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*