Rationale: High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is characterized by excessive pulmonary vasoconstriction and is associated with decreased concentrations of nitric oxide (NO) in the lung.
Objectives: We hypothesized that individuals susceptible to HAPE (HAPE-S) would also have dysfunction of the vascular NO vasodilator pathway during hypoxia in the systemic vasculature.
Methods: During normoxia (FI(O(2)) = 0.21) and 4 hours of normobaric hypoxia (FI(O(2)) = 0.12, corresponding to an altitude of 4,500 m above sea level) endothelium-dependent and endothelium-independent vasodilator responses to intraarterial infusion of acetylcholine (ACh) and sodium nitroprusside, respectively, were measured by forearm venous occlusion plethysmography in nine HAPE-S subjects and in nine HAPE-resistant control subjects.
Main results: Pulmonary artery systolic pressure increased from 22 +/- 3 to 33 +/- 6 mm Hg (p < 0.001) during hypoxia in control subjects, and from 25 +/- 4 to 50 +/- 9 mm Hg in HAPE-S subjects (p < 0.001). Despite similar responses during normoxia in both groups, ACh-induced changes in forearm blood flow markedly decreased during hypoxia in HAPE-S subjects (p = 0.01) but not in control subjects. The attenuated vascular response to ACh infusion during hypoxia inversely correlated with increased pulmonary artery systolic pressure (p = 0.04) and decreased plasma nitrite correlated with attenuated ACh-induced vasodilation in HAPE-S subjects (p = 0.02).
Conclusions: Hypoxia markedly impairs vascular endothelial function in the systemic circulation in HAPE-S subjects due to a decreased bioavailability of NO. Impairment of the NO pathway could contribute to the enhanced hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction that is central to the pathogenesis of HAPE.