OBJECTIVE--To investigate the alterations in autonomic control of heart rate at high altitude and to test the hypothesis that hypoxaemic stress during exposure to high altitude induces non-linear, periodic heart rate oscillations, similar to those seen in heart failure and the sleep apnoea syndrome. SUBJECTS--11 healthy subjects aged 24-64. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--24 hour ambulatory electrocardiogram records obtained at baseline (1524 m) and at 4700 m. Simultaneous heart rate and respiratory dynamics during 2.5 hours of sleep by fast Fourier transform analysis of beat to beat heart rate and of an electrocardiographically derived respiration signal. RESULTS--All subjects had resting hypoxaemia at high altitude, with an average oxyhaemoglobin saturation of 81% (5%). There was no significant change in mean heart rate, but low frequency (0.01-0.05 Hz) spectral power was increased (P < 0.01) at high altitude. Time series analysis showed a complex range of non-linear sinus rhythm dynamics. Striking low frequency (0.04-0.06 Hz) heart rate oscillations were observed during sleep in eight subjects at high altitude. Analysis of the electrocardiographically derived respiration signal indicated that these heart rate oscillations correlated with low frequency respiratory oscillations. CONCLUSIONS--These data suggest (a) that increased low frequency power during high altitude exposure is not simply attributable to increased sympathetic modulation of heart rate, but relates to distinctive cardiopulmonary oscillations at approximately 0.05 Hz and (b) that the emergence of periodic heart rate oscillations at high altitude is consistent with an unstable cardiopulmonary control system that may develop on acute exposure to hypoxaemic stress.
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