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Acta Physiol Scand. 1998 Mar;162(3):389-99.

Catecholamines, hypoxia and high altitude.

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Research Forum, UllevÄl Hospital, University of Oslo, Norway.


Hypoxia is a potent activator of the sympathetic nervous system by stimulating arterial chemoreceptors. However, out of 15 laboratory studies on the effects of acute and prolonged hypoxia on catecholamines, 14 failed to show any changes in plasma or urinary noradrenaline and only four studies showed significant increases in plasma or urinary adrenaline. By contrast, six out of eight studies on MSNA showed increased sympathetic nerve activity to the leg. An increased clearance of plasma catecholamines during hypoxia may be a possible explanation. Furthermore, many of the studies had limitations in a number of subjects and catecholamine assays used. Emotional aspects of the study protocols, which could contribute to the increase in adrenaline, was only assessed by sham runs in one chamber study. However, 13 out of 14 reviewed field studies on subjects staying for more than 1 week at high altitude, reported increased plasma or urinary excretion of noradrenaline which may be compatible with increased sympathetic activity. Adrenaline changed to a lesser degree. Out of seven studies on more short-term (4 h to 3 days) exposure to high altitude, only one demonstrated significantly increased plasma noradrenaline. In this study, however, several subjects had been exposed to high altitude less than 1 week before the experiment. In a new study on 12 climbers reported in this paper, a temporary reduction in plasma catecholamines was found 2 days after arrival at 4200 m. There was a steady increase towards normal levels after 1 week. Plasma vasopressin (AVP) increased suggesting a compensatory mechanism. Both plasma noradrenaline and adrenaline were positively correlated with oxygen saturation in these subjects. Thus, in previously unacclimatized subjects, short-term exposure to high altitude does not increase plasma catecholamines, rather plasma levels decreased. In addition to increased clearance, there is some evidence of reduced synthesis of catecholamines during short-term hypoxia. The oxygen sensitivity of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) activity, may be one possible mechanism.

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