What do the NFL, the Pentagon and patients with Multiple Sclerosis have in common? Apparently they are all using the RTX (Rapid Thermal Exchance) glove to improve health and/or performance. Based on real science and developed by researchers at Stanford, the RTX is designed to rapidly decrease body temerature by cooling blood as it passes through the hands. The researchers claim that athletes have remarkably improved performance in physical activities when “cooled between sets” thus preventing exhaustion and allowing the athletes to train harder. Even more remarkable is the RTX’s apparent ability to improve the quality of life for patients with MS.
RTX promises to enhance human performance in applications ranging from sports to medicine to the military. It is the brainchild of biological sciences professor H. Craig Heller and senior research scientist Dennis Grahn, who have spent nearly two decades studying temperature regulation in mammals. Their lab, once devoted to hibernating ground squirrels and marmots, now attracts San Francisco 49er football players, military representatives from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, multiple sclerosis patients and sweating Stanford athletes.
Mammals have specialized blood vessels in their palms and other hairless skin surfaces-ears, nose, cheeks and soles of the feet-that are designed to dissipate heat. (These radiator-like structures – venous plexuses and arteriovenous anastomoses – were described as early as 1858 in Grey’s Anatomy.) By redirecting blood away from the capillaries and into these blood vessels, the body can shed heat quickly. What Heller and Grahn were seeing was the return trip: when externally applied heat shocked open the radiators in the cold palms of anesthesia patients, warmed blood was returned straight to the heart, and the body was reheated from the inside out. Applying a mild vacuum to the hand intensified this effect.
Their finding that heat loss is not uniform across the body was slow to gain acceptance. In the Journal of Applied Physiology, where their research was first published in 1998, Heller and Grahn issued a frosty rejoinder to skeptics: “since we present not just a claim but hard data, it is nice to emphasize that when data do not fit a model it is time to reexamine the model.”
Critics might worry that cooling masks the body’s signals to stop. In fact, lab data show that athletes who train with cooling perform better in all kinds of conditions — even competitions when cooling is un-available. Heller says removing heat from the body is no different from giving it a drink of water in response to thirst. Asked whether training with cooling might lead to overuse injuries, Weir shakes his head. “t doesn’t allow you to do work you couldn’t ordinarily do. It allows you to recover faster.”
Meanwhile, researchers continue to investigate therapeutic uses for cooling. One exciting area of research involves multiple sclerosis, a disease where even a 1/2-degree Celsius rise in core body temperature can lead to rapid and dramatic physical and cognitive decline. (MS sufferers say the sudden enervation feels as though a switch was flipped.) The disease destroys portions of the fatty myelin sheath that insulates nerves; heat disrupts the electric impulses traveling along the frayed nerves. Retaining strength – key to staying out of a wheelchair – is a significant challenge for MS patients, for whom fatigue can lead to a spiral of disability.
There’s even an odd comparison between the RTX and ‘roids, the plus side is that “cooling doesn’t result in shriveled gonads.” Um… aren’t they familiar with ‘significant shrinkage’ ?
More at the Stanford Magazine. . .
(hat tip: Smart Economy)