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Impaired myocardial function does not explain reduced left ventricular filling and stroke volume at rest or during exercise at high altitude

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posted on 2022-04-25, 16:14 authored by Michael StembridgeMichael Stembridge, Philip N. Ainslie, Michael G Hughes, Eric StohrEric Stohr, James D. Cotter, Michael M. Tymko, Trevor A. Day, Akke Bakker, Rob Shave

 Impaired myocardial systolic contraction and diastolic relaxation have been suggested as possible mechanisms contributing to the decreased stroke volume (SV) observed at high altitude (HA). To determine whether intrinsic myocardial performance is a limiting factor in the generation of SV at HA, we assessed left ventricular (LV) systolic and diastolic mechanics and volumes in 10 healthy participants (aged 32 ± 7; mean ± SD) at rest and during exercise at sea level (SL; 344 m) and after 10 days at 5,050 m. In contrast to SL, LV end-diastolic volume was ∼19% lower at rest (P = 0.004) and did not increase during exercise despite a greater untwisting velocity. Furthermore, resting SV was lower at HA (∼17%; 60 ± 10 vs. 70 ± 8 ml) despite higher LV twist (43%), apical rotation (115%), and circumferential strain (17%). With exercise at HA, the increase in SV was limited (12 vs. 22 ml at SL), and LV apical rotation failed to augment. For the first time, we have demonstrated that EDV does not increase upon exercise at high altitude despite enhanced in vivo diastolic relaxation. The increase in LV mechanics at rest may represent a mechanism by which SV is defended in the presence of a reduced EDV. However, likely because of the higher LV mechanics at rest, no further increase was observed up to 50% peak power. Consequently, although hypoxia does not suppress systolic function per se, the capacity to increase SV through greater deformation during submaximal exercise at HA is restricted. during initial exposure to hypobaric hypoxia at high altitude (HA), cardiac output for a given absolute workload is increased to compensate for a lower arterial oxygen content before returning to baseline levels with acclimatization (8). However, after 2-5 days of acclimatization, the required cardiac output is generated through a lower stroke volume (SV) and higher heart rate (38). The reduced SV is suggestive of either lower ventricular filling, potentially caused in part by an impaired myocardial relaxation, or impaired ejection secondary to systolic contractile dysfunction. There is, however, a paucity of data in humans supporting a direct effect of hypoxia on myocardial function at HA (25, 41). The suggestion that hypoxia may impair myocardial systolic function during exercise was proposed nearly 50 years ago (3) and has been revisited more recently (27–29). Negative inotropic effects of hypoxia (arterial oxygen tension of 44 mmHg) have been shown in intact animal models (39) and isolated myocardial fibers under severe hypoxia (1% O2) (33). Exercise training under hypobaric hypoxia is also associated with altered mechanical properties at a cellular level in rodents (9), although chronic hypoxia alone did not decrease myofilament sensitivity to calcium. However, in contrast to animal studies, data in humans indicate that systolic function is maintained or enhanced at HA. For example, Suarez et al. (37) reported the maintenance of systolic function after gradual decompression to a barometric pressure of 282 mmHg, a finding that was subsequently confirmed by numerous investigations during acute and prolonged hypoxic exposure (6, 10, 12, 23, 31). However, of these studies, only Suarez et al. (37) investigated systolic function during light exercise (60 W), where function appeared to be maintained. It is not known whether systolic function is maintained at higher exercise intensities. It has also been speculated that reduced oxygen availability may impair diastolic relaxation at HA (15, 18) and thus explain the decreased left ventricular (LV) end-diastolic volume (EDV) commonly observed (2, 6, 18). However, despite numerous studies reporting a decrease in plasma volume and altered transmitral filling patterns (2, 6, 20), myocardial relaxation was only previously investigated during hypoxia in dogs (15), and no data exist examining LV relaxation during exercise at high altitude. By using sensitive, noninvasive imaging techniques (two-dimensional speckle tracking), it is now possible to examine the LV deformation mechanics (strain, twist, and untwist velocity) that underpin LV systolic and diastolic function. LV strain and twist have been shown to be sensitive measures of global and regional myocardial function, and reveal subclinical dysfunction in patients where ejection fraction is unchanged (16, 22). In addition, diastolic LV untwist velocity correlates well with invasive measures of LV stiffness and provides a temporal link between relaxation and the development of intraventricular pressure gradients (30, 43). Therefore, examination of LV mechanics at HA may determine whether the decreased SV observed at HA is dependent on impaired myocardial relaxation and/or myocardial contractile dysfunction or confirm previous findings of preserved ventricular function during exercise (37). We therefore assessed systolic and diastolic ventricular mechanics during incremental exercise at sea level and HA to examine whether impaired myocardial relaxation or systolic dysfunction explains the previously reported reduction in SV at HA. We hypothesized that at HA, 1) ventricular filling would be lower at rest and during exercise and would be accompanied by a reduction in untwist velocity and 2) systolic mechanics would be impaired during exercise at HA. 


This study was carried out within the framework of the Ev-K2-CNR Project in collaboration with the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology as foreseen by the Memorandum of Understanding between Nepal and Italy, and thanks to contributions from the Italian National Research Council. This study was supported in part by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a Canada Research Chair to PNA. The authors are grateful to the other members of this international research expedition for assistance with the organization of this project.


Published in

Journal of Applied Physiology


American Physiological Society


  • AM (Accepted Manuscript)


Stembridge M., Ainslie P.N., Hughes M.G., Stöhr E.J., Cotter J.D., Tymko M.M., Day T.A., Bakker A., Shave R. (2015) 'Impaired myocardial function does not explain reduced left ventricular filling and stroke volume at rest or during exercise at high altitude', Journal of Applied Physiology,119 (10), pp.1219-1227

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  • Cardiff School of Sport and Health Sciences

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Mike Stembridge Michael G. Hughes Eric J. Stöhr Rob Shave

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  • Cardiovascular Physiology

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