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Int J Sports Med. 1990 Feb;11 Suppl 1:S3-9.

Morphological adaptations of human skeletal muscle to chronic hypoxia.

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Department of Anatomy, University of Berne, Switzerland.


Muscle structural changes during typical mountaineering expeditions to the Himalayas were assessed by taking muscle biopsies from 14 mountaineers before and after their sojourn at high altitude (greater than 5000 m for over 8 weeks). M. vastus lateralis samples were analyzed morphometrically from electron micrographs. A significant reduction (-10%) of muscle cross-sectional area was found on CT scans of the thigh. Morphologically this loss in muscle mass appeared as a decrease in muscle fiber size mainly due to a loss of myofibrillar proteins. A loss of muscle oxidative capacity was also evident, as indicated by a decrease in the volume of muscle mitochondria (-25%). In contrast, the capillary network was mostly spared from catabolism. It is therefore concluded that oxygen availability to muscle mitochondria after prolonged high-altitude exposure in humans is improved due to an unchanged capillary network, supplying a reduced muscle oxidative capacity.

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