Increased activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis is part of the response to the stress of initial exposure to hypoxia, but there is evidence to suggest that it persists after homeostatic stability has been regained and acclimatization achieved. The adrenal glands of five lifelong residents of La Paz, Bolivia, who had lived at altitudes in the range 3600-3800 m, were significantly larger than those in age-matched controls from sea level (15.3g vs 10.4g;P<0.001) and appeared hyperplastic. The pituitary glands of the highlanders were not significantly different in size from those of the controls (0.67 g vs 0.51 g), but contained larger populations of corticotrophs expressed in terms of the total cell population of their anterior lobes (25.6% vs 19.4%;P<0.001). In conjunction with other studies of this endocrine axis in man and animals exposed to a hypoxic environment, these data suggest that greater amounts of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) are required to maintain normal adrenocortical function under such circumstances, probably as a result of hypoxic inhibition of adrenocortical sensitivity to stimulation. Physiological hyperplasia of the adrenal cortex may be common in people living at high altitude.
- High altitude
- Pituitary-adrenal axis