Sex and acetazolamide effects on chemoreflex and periodic breathing during sleep at altitude

Chest. 2015 Jan;147(1):120-131. doi: 10.1378/chest.14-0317.


Objective: Nocturnal periodic breathing occurs more frequently in men than in women with various clinical and pathophysiologic conditions. The mechanisms accounting for this sex-related difference are not completely understood. Acetazolamide effectively counteracts nocturnal periodic breathing, but it has been investigated almost exclusively in men. Our aim was to explore possible determinants of nocturnal periodic breathing in a high-altitude setting both in men and in women. We hypothesized that increased hypoxic chemosensitivity in men could be associated with the development of nocturnal periodic breathing at altitude more frequently than in women, and that acetazolamide, by leftward shifting the CO2 ventilatory response, could improve nocturnal periodic breathing at altitude in a sex-independent manner.

Methods: Forty-four healthy lowlanders (21 women), randomized to acetazolamide or placebo, underwent cardiorespiratory sleep studies at sea level off treatment and under treatment on the first night after arrival at a 4,559-m altitude. Hypoxic and hypercapnic chemosensitivities were assessed at sea level.

Results: Men, more frequently than women, exhibited increased hypoxic chemosensitivity and displayed nocturnal periodic breathing at altitude. Acetazolamide leftward shifted the CO2 set point and, at altitude, improved oxygenation and reduced periodic breathing in both sexes, but to a larger extent in men. Hypoxic chemosensitivity directly correlated with the number of apneas/hypopneas at altitude in the placebo group but not in the acetazolamide group.

Conclusions: The greater severity of periodic breathing during sleep displayed by men at altitude could be attributed to their increased hypoxic chemosensitivity. Acetazolamide counteracted the occurrence of periodic breathing at altitude in both sexes, modifying the apneic threshold and improving oxygenation.

Trial registry: EU Clinical Trials Register, EudraCT; No.: 2010-019986-27; URL:

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetazolamide / administration & dosage*
  • Adult
  • Altitude*
  • Carbonic Anhydrase Inhibitors / administration & dosage
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / drug effects*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Hypercapnia / drug therapy*
  • Hypercapnia / physiopathology
  • Hypoxia / drug therapy*
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Polysomnography
  • Sleep / physiology*


  • Carbonic Anhydrase Inhibitors
  • Acetazolamide

Associated data

  • EudraCT/2010-019986-27