Alterations in cerebral dynamics at high altitude following partial acclimatization in humans: wakefulness and sleep

Philip N Ainslie, Katie Burgess, Prajan Subedi, Keith R Burgess
Journal of Applied Physiology 2007, 102 (2): 658-64
We tested the hypothesis that, following exposure to high altitude, cerebrovascular reactivity to CO2 and cerebral autoregulation would be attenuated. Such alterations may predispose to central sleep apnea at high altitude by promoting changes in brain PCO2 and thus breathing stability. We measured middle cerebral artery blood flow velocity (MCAv; transcranial Doppler ultrasound) and arterial blood pressure during wakefulness in conditions of eucapnia (room air), hypocapnia (voluntary hyperventilation), and hypercapnia (isooxic rebeathing), and also during non-rapid eye movement (stage 2) sleep at low altitude (1,400 m) and at high altitude (3,840 m) in five individuals. At each altitude, sleep was studied using full polysomnography, and resting arterial blood gases were obtained. During wakefulness and polysomnographic-monitored sleep, dynamic cerebral autoregulation and steady-state changes in MCAv in relation to changes in blood pressure were evaluated using transfer function analysis. High altitude was associated with an increase in central sleep apnea index (0.2 +/- 0.4 to 20.7 +/- 23.2 per hour) and an increase in mean blood pressure and cerebrovascular resistance during wakefulness and sleep. MCAv was unchanged during wakefulness, whereas there was a greater decrease during sleep at high altitude compared with low altitude (-9.1 +/- 1.7 vs. -4.8 +/- 0.7 cm/s; P < 0.05). At high altitude, compared with low altitude, the cerebrovascular reactivity to CO2 in the hypercapnic range was unchanged (5.5 +/- 0.7 vs. 5.3 +/- 0.7%/mmHg; P = 0.06), while it was lowered in the hypocapnic range (3.1 +/- 0.7 vs. 1.9 +/- 0.6%/mmHg; P < 0.05). Dynamic cerebral autoregulation was further reduced during sleep (P < 0.05 vs. low altitude). Lowered cerebrovascular reactivity to CO2 and reduction in both dynamic cerebral autoregulation and MCAv during sleep at high altitude may be factors in the pathogenesis of breathing instability.

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