Role of the autonomic nervous system in the reduced maximal cardiac output at altitude

Harm J Bogaard, Susan R Hopkins, Yoshiki Yamaya, Kyuichi Niizeki, Michael G Ziegler, Peter D Wagner

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After acclimatization to high altitude, maximal exercise cardiac output (QT) is reduced. Possible contributing factors include 1) blood volume depletion, 2) increased blood viscosity, 3) myocardial hypoxia, 4) altered autonomic nervous system (ANS) function affecting maximal heart rate (HR), and 5) reduced flow demand from reduced muscle work capability. We tested the role of the ANS reduction of HR in this phenomenon in five normal subjects by separately blocking the sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of the ANS during maximal exercise after 2-wk acclimatization at 3,800 m to alter maximal HR. We used intravenous doses of 8.0 mg of propranolol and 0.8 mg of glycopyrrolate, respectively. At altitude, peak HR was 170 +/- 6 beats/min, reduced from 186 +/- 3 beats/min (P = 0.012) at sea level. Propranolol further reduced peak HR to 139 +/- 2 beats/min (P = 0.001), whereas glycopyrrolate increased peak HR to sea level values, 184 +/- 3 beats/min, confirming adequate dosing with each drug. In contrast, peak O(2) consumption, work rate, and QT were similar at altitude under all drug treatments [peak QT = 16.2 +/- 1.2 (control), 15.5 +/- 1.3 (propranolol), and 16.2 +/- 1.1 l/min (glycopyrrolate)]. All QT results at altitude were lower than those at sea level (20.0 +/- 1.8 l/min in air). Therefore, this study suggests that, whereas the ANS may affect HR at altitude, peak QT is unaffected by ANS blockade. We conclude that the effect of altered ANS function on HR is not the cause of the reduced maximal QT at altitude.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)271-9
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2002


  • Acclimatization/physiology
  • Acetylene
  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists/pharmacology
  • Adult
  • Altitude
  • Autonomic Nervous System/physiology
  • Cardiac Output/physiology
  • Female
  • Glycopyrrolate/pharmacology
  • Heart Rate/physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscarinic Antagonists/pharmacology
  • Oxygen Consumption/physiology
  • Propranolol/pharmacology
  • Stroke Volume/physiology

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