Back in September, R. Douglas Fields, a senior investigator at the NIH, wrote a really interesting post for Mind Matters on the neural hazards of tall mountains. The post was later turned into an article for Scientific American Mind. The causation is rather straightforward, as high altitudes not only starve brain cells of oxygen but can trigger dangerous swelling in the brain, as capillaries begin to leak. In fact, even when mountain climbers didn't experience any symptoms of altitude sickness, MRI scans revealed significant damage. For instance, twelve of thirteen climbers who tried to ascend Mount Everest showed "cortical atrophy or enlargement of the Virchow-Robin (VR) spaces" upon their return.
The story is now getting some notice. The Aspen Daily News, a locale with some very high peaks, recently interviewed Fields about his article. As Fields notes, â€œYou can react to high altitude quite well, but it takes time. The bodyâ€™s pretty well adapted to whatever it was evolved to encounter, and it wasnâ€™t evolved to go from sea level to 14,000 feet in one day.â€
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