Influence of high affinity haemoglobin on the response to normoxic and hypoxic exercise

Paolo B. Dominelli, Chad C. Wiggins, Sarah E. Baker, John R.A. Shepherd, Shelly K. Roberts, Tuhin K. Roy, Timothy B. Curry, James D. Hoyer, Jennifer L. Oliveira, Michael J. Joyner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Key points: Theoretical models suggest there is no benefit of high affinity haemoglobin to preserve maximal oxygen uptake in acute hypoxia but the comparative biology literature has many examples of species that are evolutionarily adapted to hypoxia and have high affinity haemoglobin. We studied humans with high affinity haemoglobin and compensatory polycythaemia. These subjects performed maximal exercise tests in normoxia and hypoxia to determine how their altered haemoglobin affinity impacts hypoxic exercise tolerance. The high affinity haemoglobin participants demonstrated an attenuated decline in maximal aerobic capacity in acute hypoxia. Those with high affinity haemoglobin had no worsening of pulmonary gas exchange during hypoxic exercise but had greater lactate and lower pH than controls for all exercise bouts. High affinity haemoglobin and compensatory polycythaemia mitigated the decline in exercise performance in acute hypoxia through a higher arterial oxygen content and an unchanged pulmonary gas exchange. Abstract: The longstanding dogma is that humans exhibit an acute reduction in haemoglobin (Hb) binding affinity for oxygen that facilitates adaptation to moderate hypoxia. However, many animals have adapted to high altitude through enhanced Hb binding affinity for oxygen. The objective of the study was to determine whether high affinity haemoglobin (HAH) affects maximal and submaximal exercise capacity. To accomplish this, we recruited individuals (n = 11, n = 8 females) with HAH (P50 = 16 ± 1 mmHg), had them perform normoxic and acute hypoxic (15% inspired oxygen) maximal exercise tests, and then compared their results to matched controls (P50 = 26 ± 1, n = 14, n = 8 females). Cardiorespiratory and arterial blood gases were collected throughout both exercise tests. Despite no difference in end-exercise arterial oxygen tension in hypoxia (59 ± 6 vs. 59 ± 9 mmHg for controls and HAH, respectively), the HAH subjects’ oxyhaemoglobin saturation ((Formula presented.)) was ∼7% higher. Those with HAH had an attenuated decline in maximal oxygen uptake ((Formula presented.)) (4 ± 5% vs. 12 ± %, p < 0.001) in hypoxia and the change in (Formula presented.) between trials was related to the change in (Formula presented.) (r = −0.75, p < 0.0001). Compared to normoxia, the controls’ alveolar-to-arterial oxygen gradient significantly increased during hypoxic exercise, whereas pulmonary gas exchange in HAH subjects was unchanged between the two exercise trials. However, arterial lactate was significantly higher and arterial pH significantly lower in the HAH subjects for both exercise trials. We conclude that HAH attenuates the decline in maximal aerobic capacity and preserves pulmonary gas exchange during acute hypoxic exercise. Our data support the comparative biology literature indicating that HAH is a positive adaptation to acute hypoxia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1475-1490
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Physiology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020


  • maximal oxygen uptake
  • oxygen delivery
  • pulmonary gas exchange
  • submaximal exercise

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology


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