Effect of plasma cholesterol on red blood cell oxygen transport

Henry Buchwald, Thomas J. O'Dea, Hector J. Menchaca, Van N. Michalek, Thomas D. Rohde

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


1. Oxygen (O2) transfer from the blood to tissues is a function of the red blood cell (RBC) O2 saturation (SO2), the plasma O2 content being negligible. Under conditions of increased tissue O2 demand, the SO2 of arterial blood does not change appreciably (97%); however, the SO2 of mixed venous blood, equal to that of the perfused tissues, can go as low as 20%. 2. Tissue O2 availability is limited by the exposure time to a RBC, which decreases under conditions of maximum stress (< 1 s). If the O2 unloading time was to increase significantly, because of a decrease in the RBC diffusion constant or an increase in the RBC membrane thickness, the RBC O2 unloading time would exceed tissue (e.g. cardiac) transit time and O2 transfer would be impaired. 3. Cholesterol constitutes the non-polar, hydrophobic lipid of the enveloping layer of the RBC membrane. As the cholesterol content of the RBC increases, the fluidity of the membrane decreases and the lipid shell stiffens. 4. Early studies demonstrated that high blood cholesterol concentrations were associated with reduced blood O2 transport; in essence, the haemoglobin dissociation curve was shifted to the left. 5. Current investigations have shown that the cholesterol RBC membrane barrier to O2 diffusion delayed O2 entry into the RBC during saturation and delayed O2 release from the RBC during desaturation. In an analysis of 93 patients divided by their cholesterol concentration into five groups, the percentage change in blood O2 diffusion was inversely proportional to the cholesterol concentration. 6. The RBC membrane cholesterol is in equilibrium with the plasma cholesterol concentration. It stands to reason that as the plasma cholesterol increases, the RBC membrane becomes impaired and O2 transport is reduced. 7. The implications of this new perspective on O2 transport include the ability to increase tissue oxygenation by lowering plasma cholesterol.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)951-955
Number of pages5
JournalClinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2000


  • Diffusion
  • Hypercholesterolaemia
  • Membrane fluidity
  • Membrane transport
  • Plasma lipids

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