December 7, 2012

Brains of high altitude climbers show signs of bleeding

Brain MRI T1 movie
Brain MRI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You knew that climbing the world's highest mountains and the havoc it must wreak on the body could have lingering effects. Just like the NFL is discovering more about brain damage caused by concussions, a new study has now come out about mountain climbers who have suffered cerebral edema. Scientists have recently proven that people who have suffered from cerebral edema bleed from the brain well after suffering from the malady.

High altitude cerebral edema (HACE) causes swelling of the brain by increasing the brain’s water content. This causes leakage of capillary fluid. The symptoms include headache, loss of coordination and decreasing levels of consciousness. It can and often does cause death. According to several sources, it is most likely to occur at elevations of at least 8,000.

Michael Knauth, M.D., Ph.D., from the University Medical Center's Department of Neuroradiology in Goettingen, Germany and colleagues compared brain MRI findings of four groups of mountain climbers. One group had suffered from HACE, another had a history of high altitude illness, yet another had a history of severe acute mountain sickness (AMS) and yet another group had a history of isolated high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).

"In most cases, these microhemorrhages are so small that they are only visible with a special MRI technique called susceptibility-weighted imaging," Dr. Knauth said. "With this technique, the microhemorrhages are depicted as little black spots."

The MRI results showed that eight of the 10 people who had suffered from HACE had evidence of microhemorrhages. The other two had uncertain results. Only two of the remaining 26 climbers were positive for microhemorrhages.

"It was previously thought that HACE did not leave any traces in the brains of survivors," Dr. Knauth said. "Our studies show that this is not the case. For several years after, microhemorrhages or microbleeds are visible in the brains of HACE survivors."

A sign warning of altitude sickness at the Mou...
A sign warning of altitude sickness in Colorado
Furthermore, survivors of the most severe cases of HACE had the most prominent evidence of microhemorrhages.

Dr. Knauth would not go as far as to tell climbers to give up high altitude climbing, but did say, "Mountaineers who have already experienced HACE once should acclimatize to the altitude very slowly."

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