UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Evidence for and against genetic predispositions to acute and chronic altitude illnesses MacInnis, Martin J.; Koehle, Michael Stephen


Humans exhibit marked variation in their responses to hypoxia, with susceptibility to acute and chronic altitude illnesses being a prominent and medically important example. Many have hypothesized that genetic differences are the cause of these variable responses to hypoxia; however, until recently, these hypotheses were based primarily on small (and sometimes anecdotal) reports pertaining to apparent differences in altitude illness susceptibility between populations, the notion that previous history of altitude illness is indicative of subsequent risk, the heritability of hypoxia-related traits, and candidate gene association studies. In the past 5 years, the use of genomic techniques has helped bolster the claim that susceptibility to some altitude illnesses is likely the result of genetic variation. For each of the major altitude illnesses, we summarize and evaluate the evidence stemming from three important characteristics of a genetic trait: (i) individual susceptibility and repeatability across assessments, (ii) biogeographical differences and familial aggregation, and (iii) association(s) with genetic variants. Evidence to support a genetic basis for susceptibilities to acute mountain sickness (AMS) and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is limited, owing partially to the subjective and unclear phenotype of AMS and the rarity and severity of HACE. In contrast, recent genomic studies have identified genes that influence susceptibility to high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), chronic mountain sickness (CMS), and high-altitude pulmonary hypertension (HAPH). The collection of more individual, familial, and biogeographical susceptibility data should improve our understanding of the extent to which genetic variation contributes to altitude illness susceptibility, and genomic and molecular investigations have the potential to elucidate the mechanisms that underpin altitude illness susceptibility.

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