Arterial oxygen saturation in Tibetan and Han infants born in Lhasa, Tibet

N Engl J Med. 1995 Nov 9;333(19):1248-52. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199511093331903.


Background: Reduced oxygen availability at high altitude is associated with increased neonatal and infant mortality. We hypothesized that native Tibetan infants, whose ancestors have inhabited the Himalayan Plateau for approximately 25,000 years, are better able to maintain adequate oxygenation at high altitude than Han infants, whose ancestors moved to Tibet from lowland areas of China after the Chinese military entered Tibet in 1951.

Methods: We compared arterial oxygen saturation, signs of hypoxemia, and other indexes of neonatal wellbeing at birth and during the first four months of life in 15 Tibetan infants and 15 Han infants at 3658 m above sea level in Lhasa, Tibet. The Han mothers had migrated from lowland China about two years previously. A pulse oximeter was placed on each infant's foot to provide measurements of arterial oxygen saturation distal to the ductus arteriosus.

Results: The two groups had similar gestational ages (about 38.9 weeks) and Apgar scores. The Han infants had lower birth weights (2773 +/- 92 g) than the Tibetan infants (3067 +/- 107 g), higher concentrations of cord-blood hemoglobin (18.6 +/- 0.8 g per deciliter, vs. 16.7 +/- 0.4 in the Tibetans), and higher hematocrit values (58.5 +/- 2.4 percent, vs. 51.4 +/- 1.2 percent in the Tibetans). In both groups, arterial oxygen saturation was highest in the first two days after birth and was lower when the infants were asleep than when they were awake. Oxygen saturation values were lower in the Han than in the Tibetan infants at all times and under all conditions during all activities. The values declined in the Han infants from 92 +/- 3 percent while they were awake and 90 +/- 5 percent during quiet sleep at birth to 85 +/- 4 percent while awake and 76 +/- 5 percent during quiet sleep at four months of age. In the Tibetan infants, oxygen saturation values averaged 94 +/- 2 percent while they were awake and 94 +/- 3 percent during quiet sleep at birth and 88 +/- 2 percent while awake and 86 +/- 5 percent during quiet sleep at four months. Han infants had clinical signs of hypoxemia--such as cyanosis during sleep and while feeding--more frequently than Tibetans.

Conclusions: In Lhasa, Tibet, we found that Tibetan newborns had higher arterial oxygen saturation at birth and during the first four months of life than Han newborns. Genetic adaptations may permit adequate oxygenation and confer resistance to the syndrome of pulmonary hypertension and right-heart failure (subacute infantile mountain sickness).

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Altitude*
  • Apgar Score
  • Birth Weight
  • Cardiac Output, Low / blood
  • Cardiac Output, Low / ethnology
  • Eating / physiology
  • Ethnicity / genetics
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypertension, Pulmonary / blood
  • Hypertension, Pulmonary / ethnology
  • Hypoxia / blood
  • Hypoxia / ethnology*
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn / blood
  • Infant, Newborn / physiology*
  • Male
  • Oximetry
  • Oxygen Consumption* / genetics
  • Oxygen Consumption* / physiology
  • Respiration
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Tibet / epidemiology
  • Wakefulness / physiology