A study has shed light on what happens to the hearts of people when they are exposed to low-levels of oxygen, such as Mount Everest or in the intensive care unit of a hospital.
In the study, researchers monitored subjects who spent time at the Mount Everest Base Camp and found that the low-level oxygen conditions at the base came caused changes in heart function resembling what is seen in conditions that severely restrict the amount of oxygen to the heart, such as cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, pneumonia, and some forms of heart failure.
However in six months heart function for these mountain climbers returned to normal. This has suggested that the same could be true for people in the ICU if the underlying cause can be corrected.
"Understanding how the heart is able to cope with low oxygen will allow better treatment for a range of heart conditions, including types of heart failure and heart attacks," said Cameron Holloway of the University of Oxford.
"We also hope to use this information to show how the heart is able to cope with other diseases associated with low oxygen levels. These experiments not only allow us to see the effects on healthy hearts, but also contribute to our understanding of how the body copes with diseases," said Holloway.
Scientists studied 14 physicians and scientists as they trekked to the Mount Everest Base Camp. Before and after the trek, heart scans (using a combination of echocardiography, cardiac magnetic resonance, and a specialized scan that assesses chemicals in the heart) were administered to each subject.
After the trek, none of these healthy subjects showed any symptoms of heart problems, but the heart scans revealed fuel levels and changes in heart function consistent with what is seen in heart failure patients.
The findings were reported in the FASEB Journal.