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High Alt Med Biol. 2012 Dec;13(4):263-8. doi: 10.1089/ham.2011.1097.

Retinal vessel tortuosity in response to hypobaric hypoxia.

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  • 1Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme, College of Medicine, Blantyre, Malawi.



Retinal vascular tortuosity is associated with retinopathy of differing etiologies, including hypertension, diabetes, and hypoxia. However, detailed understanding of the underlying pathophysiology is lacking. The aim of this study was to map changes in tortuosity associated with hypoxia at high altitude, and to determine the influence of sildenafil and an antioxidant preparation on altitude-induced tortuosity.


We measured the tortuosity of retinal vessels using a semi-automated method in 35 young, healthy subjects exposed to hypobaric hypoxia for 7 days at 5200 m, and compared the measurements to those from the same vessels at sea level. These subjects simultaneously took part in a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial of sildenafil and antioxidant. Comparison of tortuosity between these subgroups was performed.


High altitude was associated with the development of retinal tortuosity in individual vessels. A nonsignificant trend suggests this is limited by prophylaxis with sildenafil or antioxidant.


Retinal vessel tortuosity increases rapidly at high altitude. We suggest that retinal vessel tortuosity at altitude may result from increased sheer stress causing elongation of vessel segments and that this might be limited by agents that act to preserve nitric oxide dependent vasodilation.


NCT00664001, NCT00627965.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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