Skin Plays a Role in Controlling Blood Pressure

Investigating what role the skin plays in the flow of blood through small vessels.

Skin Plays a Role in Controlling Blood Pressure
Image: Craig Brierley University of Cambridge

According to the scientists at the University of Cambridge and the Karolinska Institute, Sweden, skin assumes a shocking part in directing pulse and heart rate. In a new study, scientists showed that the skin- our largest organ, regulates blood pressure and heart rate in response to changes in the amount of oxygen available in the environment.

There is no known cause for blood pressure that links to heart attack and stroke risk. In this condition, blood flow through vessels in the skin and other parts of the body is reduced.

Professor Randall Johnson from the Department of Physiology said, “Nine of ten cases of high blood pressure appears to occur spontaneously, with no known cause. Most research in this areas tends to look at the role played by organs such as the brain, heart, and kidneys, and so we know very little about what role other tissue and organs play.”

To investigate what role the skin plays in the flow of blood through small vessels, scientists exposed mice to low-oxygen conditions. These mice had been genetically modified so that they are unable to produce certain HIF proteins in the skin.

Johnson said, “Our study was set up to understand the feedback loop between the skin and the cardiovascular system. By working with mice, we were able to manipulate key genes involved in this loop.”

Scientists found that there was the deficiency of two proteins i.e., HIF-1α or HIF-2α in mice skin. Thus, low levels of oxygen changed their heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and general levels of activity.

Furthermore, scientists showed that even the response of normal, healthy mice to oxygen starvation was more complex than previously thought. In the initial ten minutes, pulse and heart rate rise, and this is trailed by a time of up to 36 hours where circulatory strain and heart rate diminish beneath ordinary levels. By around 48 hours after introduction to low levels of oxygen, circulatory strain and heart rate levels had come back to typical.

Loss of the HIF proteins during oxygen starvation tends to change when the process takes place.

Dr Andrew Cowburn from Cambridge said, “These findings suggest that our skin’s response to low levels of oxygen may have substantial effects on the how the heart pumps blood around the body. Low oxygen levels – whether temporary or sustained – are common and can be related to our natural environment or to factors such as smoking and obesity. We hope that our study will help us better understand how the body’s response to such conditions may increase our risk of – or even cause – hypertension.”

Professor Johnson adds, “Given that skin is the largest organ in our body, it perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that it plays a role in regulating such a fundamental mechanism as blood pressure. But this suggests to us that we may need to take a look at other organs and tissues in the body and see how they, too, are implicated.”