*All figures and graphs seen in this post came directly from a presentation by Dr. Lorna G Moore from the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Colorado School of Medicine on September 15, 2021 at Saint Anthony Summit Hospital
It is well known that women living at high altitudes often give birth to infants of lower birth weight than those living at sea level due in part to intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). However, causes of fetal growth restriction at high altitude are not well understood. Dr. Lorna G Moore and her colleagues have found high altitude (>8,000ft) such as that of Summit County, Colorado provide a natural laboratory for studying the physiological mechanisms sustaining fetal growth and identifying new therapies for treating pregnancy disorders.1 In this article, I will be reviewing their findings on fetal growth and uteroplacental blood flow at high altitude, whether activation of an enzyme called adenosine monophosphate kinase (AMPK) is protective, and whether hypoxia directly or indirectly reduces fetal growth.
A baby’s birth weight is the single greatest predictor of infant mortality. Preterm birth and low birth weight were the second leading causes of infant mortality in 2018 according to the CDC.2 While infants born at high altitude in Colorado have, on average, lower birth weights, multigenerational populations of Andeans and Tibetans are relatively protected from altitude-associated birth-weight reductions. Studies completed over the last 25 years in regions of the world where populations have lived at high altitude for many millennia (i.e., Andeans, Tibetans, and Ethiopians) provide “evidence for genetic adaptation to high altitude” that have been linked to improved “distribution of blood flow to vital organs and the efficiency of O2 utilization ”.
Uterine artery blood flow is crucial for reproductive success as it provides the necessary blood flow to the placenta and the fetus to meet their metabolic demands. Uterine artery blood flow increases 60-fold at low altitude but has a lesser increase in high-altitude newcomers in Colorado or elsewhere.1 In contrast, a normal pregnancy rise in uterine artery blood flow occurs in Andeans and Tibetans (Ethiopians have not been studied).
A major factor responsible for increasing uterine artery blood flow is an increase in the diameter of the main uterine artery. Of 63 genes identified as having been acted upon by natural selection, an allele called “TT” for the gene PRKAA1 which codes for the portion of AMPK involved in that enzyme’s activation is more common in Andeans and is associated both with greater uterine artery diameter and increased birth weight at high altitude.1,4 Activation of AMPK causes the uterine artery to dilate, which Dr. Moore and colleagues hypothesized would increase uterine artery blood flow and thereby help maintain birth weight. At low altitude, one of the key factors responsible for raising uterine artery blood is increased production of the vasodilator, nitric oxide (NO), in the uterine artery. Their studies showed that nitric-oxide induced vasodilation fails to occur at high altitude but, interestingly, uterine artery vasodilation in response to AMPK activation is increased, suggesting that “AMPK activation may be compensatory for the lesser NO-induced vasodilation and helps maintain fetal growth”.4 To test this idea, they used a drug called AICAR to activate AMPK in mice that were kept in simulated sea level (SL) or high altitude (HA) conditions during pregnancy. Mice that were given AICAR at high altitude showed an increase in uterine artery diameter, blood flow, and the percent of cardiac output directed to the uterine circulation (UtA flow/cardiac output).1,6
They also found that AICAR restored approximately half of the altitude-associated reduction in fetal weight.1
Their current studies are trying to figure out how a reduction in uterine artery blood flow reduces fetal growth. Their and other persons’ data suggest that lower blood flow is not solely responsible. Since AMPK is not only a vasodilator but also (and best known as) a “metabolic sensor”, Dr Moore and colleagues think that AMPK may be playing a crucial role in linking blood flow to metabolism factors at high altitude. They are planning to continue studies examining the metabolic factors involved in pregnancy and how they act to affect vasoreactivity and fetal growth.1
- Moore LG. Using studies at high altitude (HA) to identify the causes and ultimately new treatments for pregnancy disorders. lecture presented at the: September 9, 2021.
- Infant mortality. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/infantmortality.htm. Published September 8, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2021.
- Moore LG. Measuring high-altitude adaptation. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2017;123(5):1371-1385. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00321.2017
- Skeffington KL, Higgins JS, Mahmoud AD, et al. Hypoxia, AMPK activation and uterine artery vasoreactivity. J Physiol. 2016;594(5):1357-1369. doi:10.1113/JP270995
- Lorca RA, Lane SL, Bales ES, et al. High Altitude Reduces NO-Dependent Myometrial Artery Vasodilator Response During Pregnancy. Hypertension. 2019;73(6):1319-1326. doi:10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.119.12641
- Lane SL, Houck JA, Doyle AS, et al. AMP-activated protein kinase activator AICAR attenuates hypoxia-induced murine fetal growth restriction in part by improving uterine artery blood flow. J Physiol. 2020;598(18):4093-4105. doi:10.1113/JP279341
Zoe Heller is a second year Physician Assistant student from Red Rocks Community College in Arvada, CO. She was born and raised in colorful Colorado and received her undergraduate degree in biological sciences at the University of Colorado Denver. Prior to PA school she worked as a professional research assistant at the Barbara Davis Center and a medical assistant at Denver Endocrinology, Diabetes and Thyroid Center. When she’s not in clinic or studying, you can find her hiking, skiing, or sitting by a campfire at her mountain property “Coolsville” with her husband and two pups, Timber and Willa.