This thesis describes the work carried out during four treks, each over 10-11 days, from 1400m to 5000m in the Nepal Himalaya and further work performed during several two-night sojourns at the Barcroft Laboratory at 3800m on White Mountain in California, USA. Nineteen volunteers were studied during the treks in Nepal and seven volunteers were studied at White Mountain. All subjects were normal, healthy individuals who had not travelled to altitudes higher than 1000m in the previous twelve months.
The aims of this research were to examine the effects on sleep, and the ventilatory patterns during sleep, of incremental increases in altitude by employing portable polysomnography to measure and record physiological signals. A further aim of this research was to examine the relationship between the ventilatory responses to hypoxia and hypercapnia, measured at sea level, and the development of periodic breathing during sleep at high altitude. In the final part of this thesis the possibility of preventing and treating Acute Mountain Sickness with non-invasive positive pressure ventilation while sleeping at high altitude was tested.
Chapter 1 describes the background information on sleep, and breathing during sleep, at high altitudes. Most of these studies were performed in hypobaric chambers to simulate various high altitudes. One study measured sleep at high altitude after trekking, but there are no studies which systematically measure sleep and breathing throughout the whole trek.
Breathing during sleep at high altitude and the physiological elements of the control of breathing (under normal/sea level conditions and under the hypobaric, hypoxic conditions present at high altitude) are described in this Chapter.
The occurrence of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) in subjects who travel form near sea level to altitudes above 3000m is common but its pathophysiology not well understood. The background research into AMS and its treatment and prevention are also covered in Chapter 1.
Chapter 2 describes the equipment and methods used in this research, including the polysomnographic equipment used to record sleep and breathing at sea level and the high altitude locations, the portable blood gas analyser used in Nepal and the equipment and methodology used to measure each individual’s ventilatory response to hypoxia and hypercapnia at sea level before ascent to the high altitude locations.
Chapter 3 reports the findings on the changes to sleep at high altitude, with particular focus on changes in the amounts of total sleep, the duration of each sleep stage and its percentage of total sleep, and the number and causes of arousals from sleep that occurred during sleep at increasing altitudes.
The lightest stage of sleep, Stage 1 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, was increased, as expected with increases in altitude, while the deeper stages of sleep (Stages 3 and 4 NREM sleep, also called slow wave sleep), were decreased. The increase in Stage 1 NREM in this research is in agreement with all previous findings.
However, slow wave sleep, although decreased, was present in most of our subjects at all altitudes in Nepal; this finding is in contrast to most previous work, which has found a very marked reduction, even absence, of slow wave sleep at high altitude. Surprisingly, unlike experimental animal studies of chronic hypoxia, REM sleep was well maintained at all altitudes.
Stage 2 NREM and REM sleep, total sleep time, sleep efficiency and spontaneous arousals were maintained at near sea level values.
The total arousal index was increased with increasing altitude and this was due to the increasing severity of periodic breathing as altitude increased. An interesting finding of this research was that fewer than half the periodic breathing apneas and hypopneas resulted in arousal from sleep. There was a minor degree of upper airway obstruction in some subjects at sea level but this was almost resolved by 3500m.
Chapter 4 reports the findings on the effects on breathing during sleep of the progressive increase of altitude, in particular the occurrence of periodic breathing. This Chapter also reports the results of changes to arterial blood gases as subjects ascended to higher altitudes. As expected, arterial blood gases were markedly altered at even the lowest altitude in Nepal (1400m) and this change became more pronounced at each new, higher altitude. Most subjects developed periodic breathing at high altitude but there was a wide variability between subjects as well as variability in the degree of periodic breathing that individual subjects developed at different altitudes. Some subjects developed periodic breathing at even the lowest altitude
and this increased with increasing altitude; other subjects developed periodic breathing at one or two altitudes, while four subjects did not develop periodic breathing at any altitude.
Ventilatory responses to hypoxia and hypercapnia, measured at sea level before departure to high altitude, was not significantly related to the development of periodic breathing when the group was analysed as a whole. However, when the subjects were grouped according to the steepness of their ventilatory response slopes, there was a pattern of higher amounts of periodic breathing in subjects with steeper ventilatory responses.
Chapter 5 reports the findings of an experimental study carried out in the University of California, San Diego, Barcroft Laboratory on White Mountain in California. Seven subjects drove from sea level to 3800m in one day and stayed at this altitude for two nights. On one of the nights the subjects slept using a non-invasive positive pressure device via a face mask and this was found to significantly improve the sleeping oxyhemoglobin saturation. The use of the device was also found to eliminate the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, as measured by the Lake Louise scoring system. This finding appears to confirm the hypothesis that lower oxygen saturation, particularly during sleep, is strongly correlated to the development of Acute Mountain Sickness and may represent a new treatment and prevention strategy for this very common high altitude disorder.