The autonomic nervous system at high altitude

Clin Auton Res. 2007 Feb;17(1):13-9. doi: 10.1007/s10286-006-0395-7. Epub 2007 Jan 30.


The effects of hypobaric hypoxia in visitors depend not only on the actual elevation but also on the rate of ascent. Sympathetic activity increases and there are increases in blood pressure and heart rate. Pulmonary vasoconstriction leads to pulmonary hypertension, particularly during exercise. The sympathetic excitation results from hypoxia, partly through chemoreceptor reflexes and partly through altered baroreceptor function. High pulmonary arterial pressures may also cause reflex systemic vasoconstriction. Most permanent high altitude dwellers show excellent adaptation although there are differences between populations in the extent of the ventilatory drive and the erythropoiesis. Some altitude dwellers, particularly Andeans, may develop chronic mountain sickness, the most prominent characteristic of which being excessive polycythaemia. Excessive hypoxia due to peripheral chemoreceptor dysfunction has been suggested as a cause. The hyperviscous blood leads to pulmonary hypertension, symptoms of cerebral hypoperfusion, and eventually right heart failure and death.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Altitude Sickness / physiopathology
  • Altitude*
  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Cardiovascular Physiological Phenomena
  • Humans
  • Travel