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Diversity in and adaptation to breath-hold diving in humans.

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  • 1Department of Physiology, University Medical Centre, 1 rue Michel Servet, CH-1211 4, Geneva, Switzerland.


Several features of potential adaptation to breath-hold diving in diving populations and extreme divers are reviewed. Thermal adaptation consists of an improvement in cold tolerance, as witnessed by a decrease in critical water temperature, and implies an elevation of the shivering threshold associated with a greater body insulation. This is indicative of either a strong peripheral vasoconstriction or a more effective countercurrent heat exchange. Respiratory adaptation consists of a blunted ventilatory response to carbon dioxide and an enlargement of lung volumes. Finally, the occurrence of a diving response has been demonstrated. An extreme peripheral vasoconstriction is associated with a dramatic increase in arterial blood pressure. The consequent stimulation of arterial baroreceptors causes an extreme drop of heart rate. Bradycardia is not compensated by a higher stroke volume, with consequent decrease in cardiac output. This decrease, however, is not such as to undermine perfusion to vital organs. Redistribution of blood flow occurs, and some organs such as skeletal muscle may become unperfused, as indicated by the high blood lactate concentrations at low metabolic rate. It is not possible to state, however, whether these changes reflect genetic adaptations or an adaptive response to a prolonged environmental stress.

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