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Mechanism of the human diving response

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Abstract

The diving response in human beings is characterized by breath-holding, slowing of the heart rate (diving bradycardia), reduction of limb blood flow and a gradual rise in the mean arterial blood pressure. The bradycardia results from increased parasympathetic stimulus to the cardiac pacemaker. The reduction in limb blood flow is due to vasoconstriction resulting from increased activity of the sympathetic nerves supplying arteries in the arms and legs. Essentially the response is produced by the combination of water touching the face and either voluntary or involuntary (reflex) arrest of breathing. The nervous inputs and outputs for the response are coordinated in the brain stem by the respiratory, vasomotor and cardioinhibitory “centers.” The diving response in human beings can be modified by many factors but the most important are water temperature, oxygen tension in the arterial blood and emotional factors.

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This paper is based on an invited address presented at “Drowning—A National One Day Seminar” at the University of Queensland Medical School, Brisbane, Australia on November 7, 1990.

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Gooden, B.A. Mechanism of the human diving response. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science 29, 6–16 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02691277

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