Effects of chronic hypoxemia on chemosensitivity in patients with univentricular heart

J Am Coll Cardiol. 1997 Dec;30(7):1827-34. doi: 10.1016/s0735-1097(97)00360-4.


Objectives: We sought to compare the arterial blood gas chemosensitivity in relation to exercise ventilatory response in patients with univentricular heart and cyanosis and in patients with univentricular heart and Fontan-type circulation without cyanosis.

Background: Patients with univentricular heart demonstrate excessive ventilation during exercise. Chronic hypoxemia may alter chemoreceptor function, affecting ventilation.

Methods: Cardiopulmonary exercise testing was performed in 10 patients with rest or stress-induced cyanosis (cyanotic group: mean age +/- SE 30.5 +/- 2.3 years; 5 men), 8 patients without cyanosis with Fontan-type circulation (Fontan group: mean age 29.4 +/- 1.5 years; 4 men) and 10 healthy control subjects (normal group: mean age 30.7 +/- 1.9 years; 5 men). Hypoxic and hypercapnic chemosensitivity were assessed by using transient inhalations of pure nitrogen and the rebreathing of 7% CO2 in 93% O2, respectively.

Results: Peak O2 consumption was comparable in both patient groups (21.7 +/- 2.5 [cyanotic group] vs. 21.0 +/- 1.9 ml/kg per min [Fontan group]) but was lower than that in the normal group (34.7 +/- 1.9 ml/kg per min). The ventilatory response to exercise, characterized by the regression slope relating minute ventilation to CO2 output, was higher in the cyanotic group (43.4 +/- 4.0) than in the Fontan group (31.4 +/- 3.0, p = 0.02) and the normal group (23.1 +/- 1.1). Hypoxic chemosensitivity was blunted in the cyanotic group compared with that in the Fontan and normal groups (0.148 vs. 0.448 [p = 0.02] vs. 0.311 liter/min per percent arterial O2 saturation, respectively) and did not correlate with the ventilatory response to exercise (r = -0.36, p = 0.29). In contrast, hypercapnic chemosensitivity represented by the slope of the hypercapnic-ventilatory response line was similar in the cyanotic, Fontan and normal groups (1.71 vs. 1.76 vs. 1.70 liter/min per mm Hg, respectively), but the response line had shifted to the left in the cyanotic group (x intercept = 31.9 vs. 39.9 mm Hg [p = 0.026]), compared with 45.2 mm Hg in normal subjects. These findings suggest that in the cyanotic group, ventilation is greater for a given level of arterial CO2 tension and thus may partly explain the increased exercise ventilatory response in this group.

Conclusions: Hypoxic chemosensitivity is blunted in patients with univentricular heart and cyanosis and does not determine the exercise ventilatory response. CO2 elimination appears more important. The blunting of hypoxic chemosensitivity is reversible once chronic hypoxemia is relieved, as evident in the Fontan group.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Carbon Dioxide / pharmacology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / drug effects
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiology*
  • Exercise Test
  • Exercise Tolerance / physiology
  • Female
  • Fontan Procedure
  • Heart Defects, Congenital / blood*
  • Heart Defects, Congenital / physiopathology
  • Heart Defects, Congenital / surgery
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Pulmonary Ventilation / physiology*


  • Carbon Dioxide