The human diving response, its function, and its control


Corresponding author: William Sheel, Health and Integrative Physiology Laboratory, School of Human Kinetics, University of British Columbia, 210-6081 University Blvd, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T-1Z1. Tel: +604 822 4459, Fax: +604 822 9451, E-mail:


The purpose of this review is to outline the physiological responses associated with the diving response, its functional significance, and its cardiorespiratory control. This review is separated into four major sections. Section one outlines the diving response and its physiology. Section two provides support for the hypothesis that the primary role of the diving response is the conservation of oxygen. The third section describes how the diving response is controlled and provides a model that illustrates the cardiorespiratory interaction. Finally, the fourth section illustrates potential adaptations that result after regular exposure to an asphyxic environment. The cardiovascular and endocrine responses associated with the diving response and apnea are bradycardia, vasoconstriction, and an increase in secretion of suprarenal catecholamines. These responses require the integration of both the cardiovascular system and the respiratory system. The primary role of the diving response is likely to conserve oxygen for sensitive brain and heart tissue and to lengthen the time before the onset of serious hypoxic damage. We suggest that future research should be focused towards understanding the role of altered ventilatory responses in human breath-hold athletes as well as in patients suffering from sleep-disordered breathing.