Exposure to hypoxia produces long-lasting sympathetic activation in humans

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2001 Oct;91(4):1555-62. doi: 10.1152/jappl.2001.91.4.1555.


The relative contributions of hypoxia and hypercapnia in causing persistent sympathoexcitation after exposure to the combined stimuli were assessed in nine healthy human subjects during wakefulness. Subjects were exposed to 20 min of isocapnic hypoxia (arterial O(2) saturation, 77-87%) and 20 min of normoxic hypercapnia (end-tidal P(CO)(2), +5.3-8.6 Torr above eupnea) in random order on 2 separate days. The intensities of the chemical stimuli were manipulated in such a way that the two exposures increased sympathetic burst frequency by the same amount (hypoxia: 167 +/- 29% of baseline; hypercapnia: 171 +/- 23% of baseline). Minute ventilation increased to the same extent during the first 5 min of the exposures (hypoxia: +4.4 +/- 1.5 l/min; hypercapnia: +5.8 +/- 1.7 l/min) but declined with continued exposure to hypoxia and increased progressively during exposure to hypercapnia. Sympathetic activity returned to baseline soon after cessation of the hypercapnic stimulus. In contrast, sympathetic activity remained above baseline after withdrawal of the hypoxic stimulus, even though blood gases had normalized and ventilation returned to baseline levels. Consequently, during the recovery period, sympathetic burst frequency was higher in the hypoxia vs. the hypercapnia trial (166 +/- 21 vs. 104 +/- 15% of baseline in the last 5 min of a 20-min recovery period). We conclude that both hypoxia and hypercapnia cause substantial increases in sympathetic outflow to skeletal muscle. Hypercapnia-evoked sympathetic activation is short-lived, whereas hypoxia-induced sympathetic activation outlasts the chemical stimulus.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Female
  • Hemodynamics / drug effects
  • Hemodynamics / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypercapnia / physiopathology
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiopathology
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Respiratory Mechanics / physiology
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*