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Diving bradycardia: a mechanism of defence against hypoxic damage

Alboni, Paolo; Alboni, Marco; Gianfranchi, Lorella

Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine: June 2011 - Volume 12 - Issue 6 - p 422–427
doi: 10.2459/JCM.0b013e328344bcdc
Review articles

A feature of all air-breathing vertebrates, diving bradycardia is triggered by apnoea and accentuated by immersion of the face or whole body in cold water. Very little is known about the afferents of diving bradycardia, whereas the efferent part of the reflex circuit is constituted by the cardiac vagal fibres. Diving bradycardia is associated with vasoconstriction of selected vascular beds and a reduction in cardiac output. The diving response appears to be more pronounced in mammals than in birds. In humans, the bradycardic response to diving varies greatly from person to person; the reduction in heart rate generally ranges from 15 to 40%, but a small proportion of healthy individuals can develop bradycardia below 20 beats/min. During prolonged dives, bradycardia becomes more pronounced because of activation of the peripheral chemoreceptors by a reduction in the arterial partial pressure of oxygen (O2), responsible for slowing of heart rate. The vasoconstriction is associated with a redistribution of the blood flow, which saves O2 for the O2-sensitive organs, such as the heart and brain. The results of several investigations carried out both in animals and in humans show that the diving response has an O2-conserving effect, both during exercise and at rest, thus lengthening the time to the onset of serious hypoxic damage. The diving response can therefore be regarded as an important defence mechanism for the organism.

aDivision of Cardiology and Arrhythmologic Center, Ospedale Civile, Cento (FE), Italy

bDepartment of Zoology and Anthropology, University of Sassari, Sassari, Italy

Received 8 September, 2010

Revised 10 December, 2010

Accepted 18 January, 2011

Correspondence to Dr Paolo Alboni, Division of Cardiology, Ospedale Civile, 44042 Cento (FE), Italy Tel: +39 051 6838219; fax: +39 051 6838471; e-mail:

© 2011 Italian Federation of Cardiology. All rights reserved.