Physiological and Clinical Implications of Adrenergic Pathways at High Altitude

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2016;903:343-56. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4899-7678-9_23.


The adrenergic system is part of a full array of mechanisms allowing the human body to adapt to the hypoxic environment. Triggered by the stimulation of peripheral chemoreceptors, the adrenergic centers in the medulla are activated in acute hypoxia and augment the adrenergic drive to the organs, especially to the heart, leading to tachycardia. With prolonged exposure to altitude hypoxia, the adrenergic drive persists, as witnessed by elevated blood concentrations of catecholamines and nerve activity in adrenergic fibers. In response to this persistent stimulation, the pathways leading to the activation of adenylate cyclase are modified. A downregulation of β-adrenergic and adenosinergic receptors is observed, while muscarinic receptors are upregulated. The expression and activity of Gi and Gs proteins are modified, leading to a decreased response of adenylate cyclase activity to adrenergic stimulation. The clinical consequences of these cellular and molecular changes are of importance, especially for exercise performance and protection of heart function. The decrease in maximal exercise heart rate in prolonged hypoxia is fully accounted for the observed changes in adrenergic and muscarinic pathways. The decreased heart rate response to isoproterenol infusion is another marker of the desensitization of adrenergic pathways. These changes can be considered as mechanisms protecting the heart from a too high oxygen consumption in conditions where the oxygen availability is severely reduced. Similarly, intermittent exposure to hypoxia has been shown to protect the heart from an ischemic insult with similar mechanisms involving G proteins and downregulation of β receptors. Other pathways with G proteins are concerned in adaptation to hypoxia, such as lactate release by the muscles and renal handling of calcium. Altogether, the activation of the adrenergic system is useful for the acute physiological response to hypoxia. With prolonged exposure to hypoxia, the autonomous nervous system adapts to protect vital organs, especially the heart, against a too high energetic state, via a purely local autoregulation mechanism necessary for the preservation of overall homeostasis.

Keywords: Autonomic; G proteins; Muscarinic; β receptors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Altitude*
  • Animals
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia
  • Myocardium / pathology
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta / metabolism*


  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta