A mountaineering medical team from University College London’s Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine (Case) is planning an expedition to the Everest to study the physiologic effect of hypoxia and high altitute, in hopes to have this research applicable to critically ill patients. BBC News reports:
As they climb, the team will measure the amount of oxygen in their own blood as well as the performance of their brains, lungs and metabolisms.
With jobs back home in anaesthesia, intensive care or remote medicine, they hope to draw a comparison between the human body pushed to its limits during critical illness and the changes experienced at extreme altitude.
But tackling Everest, let alone carrying out scientific studies on its summit, is not for novices.
Expedition leader Dr Mike Grocott says it was the combination of the group’s hobbies and work life that first gave them the idea for such an unusual experiment.
No one has measured blood oxygen levels at the top of Everest before. The team plans to take arterial samples of blood – a simple procedure in the comfort of a nice warm hospital.
But under the challenging subzero conditions of Everest, the thick walls of the arteries and high pressure of the blood being pumped within them will make the task more difficult and dangerous – carrying the risk of thrombosis or bleeding.
The team will also use specialised probes to measure oxygen levels in body tissues and blood flow in different parts of the body.
There is a strong theory that at least some of the symptoms of acute mountain sickness are due to brain oedema – fluid on the brain – which causes it to swell.
As your skull is a fixed space, any swelling puts pressure on your grey matter causing splitting headaches, loss of balance and eventually death.
To find out what happens to the brain at altitude, the team will measure this intracranial pressure and use infra-red spectrometry to gauge oxygen levels in their brains.
Their hope is that coupling this data with standard cognitive tests will determine the relationship between climbers’ physical and mental reactions to altitude.
A concurrent genetics study will enable the team to explore why our bodies react in the way they do, and why some people can cope with low oxygen levels better than others.