If a gas not containing any oxygen is breathed, consciousness is rapidly lost with no increase whatever in the rate of breathing. Haldane had witnessed the effects first-hand down in the coal mines of South Wales: “Thus it is a common experience with miners going into an atmosphere of nearly pure fire damp [methane, CH4], or climbing up so that their heads are in the gas; they drop suddenly as if they were shot.” The response to rapidly halving the oxygen level breathed is actually an increase in pulse rate and blood flow, not an increase in the rate of breathing. The increase in pulse rate had first been recorded by Glaisher and Coxwell in their epic ascent from Wolverhampton gas works; it had risen from 70 on the ground to 100 at altitude.
Unfortunately, by the time Haldane had begun his investigation of the control of breathing, it was already a commonly accepted opinion that the “want of oxygen,” which is now referred to as hypoxia, was the stimulus to the respiratory centre, and acted quite independently from carbon dioxide. Haldane certainly did not subscribe to this view; he had experienced loss of consciousness after just 50 seconds breathing the “air,” which was afterwards found to contain 1.8% oxygen. He noted that he had no increase whatsoever in his urge to breathe.
(Excerpted from Oxygen and the Brain by Dr. Philip James. Reference: James, P.B. Oxygen and the Brain: The Journey of Our Lifetime. North Palm Beach: Best Publishing Company; 2014.)
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