BACKGROUND--Patients with respiratory failure have early fatiguability which may be due to limitation of oxygen supply for oxidative (mitochondrial) ATP synthesis. Skeletal muscle in exercise and recovery was studied to examine the effect of chronic hypoxia on mitochondrial activity in vivo. METHODS--The skeletal muscle of five patients with respiratory failure (PaO2 < 9 kPa) was studied by phosphorus-31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy and compared with 10 age and sex matched controls. Patients lay in a 1.9 Tesla superconducting magnet with the gastrocnemius muscle overlying a six cm surface coil. Spectra were acquired at rest, during plantar flexion exercise, and during recovery from exercise. Relative concentrations of inorganic phosphate (Pi), phosphocreatine (PCr) and ATP were measured from peak areas, and pH and free ADP concentration were calculated. For the start of exercise, the rates of PCr depletion and estimated lactic acid production were calculated. For the post exercise recovery period, the initial rate of PCr recovery (a quantitative measure of mitochondrial ATP synthesis), the apparent Vmax for mitochondrial ATP synthesis (calculated from initial PCr resynthesis and the end exercise ADP concentration which drives this process), and the recovery half times of PCr, Pi, and ADP (also measures of mitochondrial function) were determined. RESULTS--Considerably greater and faster PCr depletion and intracellular acidosis were found during exercise. This is consistent with limitation of oxygen supply to the muscle and might explain the early fatiguability of these patients. There was no abnormality in recovery from exercise, however, suggesting that mitochondria function normally after exercise. CONCLUSIONS--These results are consistent with one or more of the following: (a) decreased level of activity of these patients; (b) changes in the fibre type of the muscle; (c) decreased oxygen supply to the muscle during exercise but not during recovery. They are not consistent with an intrinsic defect of mitochondrial ATP synthesis in skeletal muscle in respiratory failure.
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