JOURNAL ARTICLE

The cost to the central nervous system of climbing to extremely high altitude

T F Hornbein, B D Townes, R B Schoene, J R Sutton, C S Houston
New England Journal of Medicine 1989 December 21, 321 (25): 1714-9
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To assess the possibility that climbing to extremely high altitude may result in hypoxic injury to the brain, we performed neuropsychological and physiologic testing on 35 mountaineers before and 1 to 30 days after ascent to altitudes between 5488 and 8848 m, and on 6 subjects before and after simulation in an altitude chamber of a 40-day ascent to 8848 m. Neuropsychological testing revealed a decline in visual long-term memory after ascent as compared with before; of 14 visual items of information on the Wechsler Memory Scale, fewer were recalled after ascent by both the simulated-ascent group (a mean [+/- SD] of 10.14 +/- 1.68 items before, as compared with 7.00 +/- 3.35 items after; P less than 0.05) and the mountaineers (12.33 +/- 1.96 as compared with 11.36 +/- 1.88; P less than 0.05). Verbal long-term memory was also affected, but only in the simulated-ascent group; of a total of 10 words, an average of 8.14 +/- 1.86 were recalled before simulated ascent, but only 6.83 +/- 1.47 afterward (P less than 0.05). On the aphasia screening test, on which normal persons make an average of less than one error in verbal expression, the mountaineers made twice as many aphasic errors after ascent (1.03 +/- 1.10) as before (0.52 +/- 0.80; P less than 0.05). A higher ventilatory response to hypoxia correlated with a reduction in verbal learning (r = -0.88, P less than 0.05) and with poor long-term verbal memory (r = -0.99, P less than 0.01) after ascent. An increase in the number of aphasic errors on the aphasia screening test also correlated with a higher ventilatory response to hypoxia in both the simulated-ascent group (r = 0.94, P less than 0.01) and a subgroup of 11 mountaineers (r = 0.59, P less than 0.05). We conclude that persons with a more vigorous ventilatory response to hypoxia have more residual neurobehavioral impairment after returning to lower elevations. This finding may be explained by poorer oxygenation of the brain despite greater ventilation, perhaps because of a decrease in cerebral blood flow caused by hypocapnia that more than offsets the increase in arterial oxygen saturation.

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