Isolated core vs. superficial cooling effects on virtual maze navigation

Jennifer Payne, Stephen S Cheung
Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 2007, 78 (7): 680-5

INTRODUCTION: Cold impairs cognitive performance and is a common occurrence in many survival situations. Altered behavior patterns due to impaired navigation abilities in cold environments are potential problems in lost-person situations. We investigated the separate effects of low core temperature and superficial cooling on a spatially demanding virtual navigation task.

METHODS: There were 12 healthy men who were passively cooled via 15 degrees C water immersion to a core temperature of 36.0 degrees C, then transferred to a warm (40 degrees C) water bath to eliminate superficial shivering while completing a series of 20 virtual computer mazes. In a control condition, subjects rested in a thermoneutral (approximately 35 degrees C) bath for a time-matched period before being transferred to a warm bath for testing. Superficial cooling and distraction were achieved by whole-body immersion in 35 degree water for a time-matched period, followed by lower leg immersion in 10 degree C water for the duration of the navigational tests.

RESULTS: Mean completion time and mean error scores for the mazes were not significantly different (p > 0.05) across the core cooling (16.59 +/- 11.54 s, 0.91 +/- 1.86 errors), control (15.40 +/- 8.85 s, 0.82 +/- 1.76 errors), and superficial cooling (15.19 +/- 7.80 s, 0.77 +/- 1.40 errors) conditions.

DISCUSSION: Separately reducing core temperature or increasing cold sensation in the lower extremities did not influence performance on virtual computer mazes, suggesting that navigation is more resistive to cooling than other, simpler cognitive tasks. Further research is warranted to explore navigational ability at progressively lower core and skin temperatures, and in different populations.

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