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J Physiol. 2006 Apr 1;572(Pt 1):295-305. Epub 2006 Jan 26.

Erythrocytes and the regulation of human skeletal muscle blood flow and oxygen delivery: role of erythrocyte count and oxygenation state of haemoglobin.

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Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, UK.


Blood flow to dynamically contracting myocytes is regulated to match O(2) delivery to metabolic demand. The red blood cell (RBC) itself functions as an O(2) sensor, contributing to the control of O(2) delivery by releasing the vasodilators ATP and S-nitrosohaemoglobin with the offloading of O(2) from the haemoglobin molecule. Whether RBC number is sensed remains unknown. To investigate the role of RBC number, in isolation and in combination with alterations in blood oxygenation, on muscle and systemic perfusion, we measured local and central haemodynamics during one-legged knee-extensor exercise ( approximately 50% peak power) in 10 healthy males under conditions of normocythaemia (control), anaemia, anaemia + plasma volume expansion (PVX), anaemia + PVX + hypoxia, polycythaemia, polycythaemia + hyperoxia and polycythaemia + hypoxia, which changed either RBC count alone or both RBC count and oxyhaemoglobin. Leg blood flow (LBF), cardiac output (Q) and vascular conductance did not change with either anaemia or polycythaemia alone. However, LBF increased with anaemia + PVX (28 +/- 4%) and anaemia + PVX + hypoxia (46 +/- 6%) and decreased with polycythaemia + hyperoxia (18 +/- 5%). LBF and Q with anaemia + PVX + hypoxia (8.0 +/- 0.5 and 15.8 +/- 0.7 l min(-1), respectively) equalled those during maximal knee-extensor exercise. Collectively, LBF and vascular conductance were intimately related to leg arterial-venous (a-v) O(2) difference (r(2)= 0.89-0.93; P < 0.001), suggesting a pivotal role of blood O(2) gradients in muscle microcirculatory control. The systemic circulation accommodated to the changes in muscle perfusion. Our results indicate that, when coping with severe haematological challenges, local regulation of skeletal muscle blood flow and O(2) delivery primarily senses alterations in the oxygenation state of haemoglobin and, to a lesser extent, alterations in the number of RBCs and haemoglobin molecules.

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