Breathing at high altitude

Cell Mol Life Sci. 2009 Nov;66(22):3565-73. doi: 10.1007/s00018-009-0143-y. Epub 2009 Sep 10.


Acclimatization to long-term hypoxia takes place at high altitude and allows gradual improvement of the ability to tolerate the hypoxic environment. An important component of this process is the hypoxic ventilatory acclimatization (HVA) that develops over several days. HVA reveals profound cellular and neurochemical re-organization occurring both in the peripheral chemoreceptors and in the central nervous system (in brainstem respiratory groups). These changes lead to an enhanced activity of peripheral chemoreceptor and re-inforce the central translation of peripheral inputs to efficient respiratory motor activity under the steady low O(2) pressure. We will review the cellular processes underlying these changes with a particular emphasis on changes of neurotransmitter function and ion channel properties in peripheral chemoreceptors, and present evidence that low O(2) level acts directly on brainstem nuclei to induce cellular changes contributing to maintain a high tonic respiratory drive under chronic hypoxia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Altitude*
  • Animals
  • Carotid Body / physiopathology
  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology
  • Models, Biological
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Respiration*