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SICK S2 • E2

What Does Altitude Sickness Do to the Human Brain?

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Published on Jul 17, 2019

As if climbing a mountain wasn’t hard enough already, forcing the body to acclimate to high altitudes too quickly can not only stop someone from reaching the summit, it can have dire consequences.

But altitude sickness doesn’t just affect adrenaline-driven mountaineers. It can also catch up with you just on a drive up to the mountains.

The biggest difference between low altitudes and high altitudes is not a lack of oxygen but rather a change in the atmospheric pressure. The amount of oxygen in the ambient air we breathe doesn't change between low altitudes like sea level and high altitudes like Mount Everest. It is instead this atmospheric pressure that drives the gas exchange from the lungs to the red blood cells, which then carry oxygen to the rest of the body, according to Jan Stepanek, an internal medicine and aerospace specialist.

So because there is less pressure at high altitudes, it is harder for the body to take up the oxygen. And while, if you ascend to a high altitude slowly, your body is able to adapt to the lack of ambient pressure by breathing faster and elevating the heart rate, if you jump from low altitudes to high altitudes too fast, your body doesn't have the time to adjust, struggles with the change, and this causes one kind of altitude sickness called acute mountain sickness. Someone with acute mountain sickness can experience symptoms of altitude sickness like headaches, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and more.

Essentially, your sympothoadrenal drive (when your heart rate and your cardiac output goes up allowing your body to gradually reset to the new altitude of ambient pressure) only occurs when you increase altitudes slowly.

More dangerous forms of altitude illnesses can be a result of low carbon dioxide levels because we need certain levels of carbon dioxide to maintain a normal blood flow to the brain, so when carbon dioxide levels drop too low, blood flow to the brain starts to diminish. The changes in oxygen levels and resulting changes in breathing can cause the more dangerous altitude illnesses, high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).

The best way to prevent altitude sickness is just by taking more time to move from low to high elevations.
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SICK is a new series that looks at how diseases actually work inside our body. We'll be visiting medical centers and talking to top researchers and doctors to uncover the mysteries of viruses, bacteria, fungi and our own immune system. Come back every Tuesday for a new episode and let us know in the comments which diseases you think we should cover next.
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Read More:
Guidelines for Prevention and Treatment of Acute Altitude Illness
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science...

The Quality of Sleep at High Altitudes:
https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10...

The Tricky Business of Treating Altitude Sickness
https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/tr...
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