Brain Post: Mountain Climbing Kills Brain Cells

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Scientific American published a paper by Douglas Fields called “Into Thin Air:  Mountain Climbing Kills Brain Cells” in 2008.  The study referred to in the article is the Fayed Study.  If you or anyone you know climbs mountain, you/they need to read the article in the link above.

Mountain and rocking climbing.  Good for you?  Sure, as long as you stay below 14,000-feet.

The higher you get, the less available oxygen there is.
The higher you get, the less available oxygen there is.

Ever met someone who gets high a lot?  They’re different, right?  We mean high as in high elevation.  Depriving your brain of oxygen and exercising hard is a perfect recipe for permanent brain damage.

The results in the Everest climbers were the starkest. Of the 13 climbers, three had made the 8,848-meter summit, three had reached 8,100 meters, and seven had topped out between 6,500 and 7,500 meters. The expedition had no major mishaps, and none of the 12 professional climbers evinced any obvious signs of high-altitude illness; the only acute case of mountain sickness was a mild one in the expedition’s amateur climber. Yet only one of the 13 climbers (a professional) returned with a normal brain scan. All the scans of the other 12 showed cortical atrophy or enlargement of the Virchow-Robin (VR) spaces. These  spaces surround the blood vessels that drain brain fluid and communicate with the lymph system; widening of these VR spaces is seen in the elderly but rarely in the young. The amateur climber’s brain had also suffered subcortical lesions in the frontal lobes.” – Scientific American

Losing brain cells due to high altitude exposure.
Losing brain cells due to high altitude exposure.

Everest is an extreme example.  Yet, the brain damage these climbers get from 23,000-feet in Argentina sounds terrifying…

How High Is Too High?

“Of course, Everest is extreme. Fayed and his colleagues also studied an eight-person team that attempted Aconcagua, a 6,962-meter summit in the Argentine Andes. Two climbers reached the summit, five climbed to between 6,000 and 6,400 meters, and one reached 5,500 meters. Yet three members experienced acute mountain sickness, and two displayed symptoms of brain edema—probably because they ascended more rapidly from lower altitudes than the Everest climbers did.”

“All eight Aconcagua climbers showed cortical atrophy on MRI scans. Seven showed enlarged VR spaces, and four showed numerous subcortical lesions. Some needed no scan to tell them their brains had been injured. One climber suffered aphasia (problems with speech), from which he recovered six months later. Two complained of transient memory loss after returning, and three others struggled with bradypsychia (slowed mental function)” – Scientific American


The good news is that the Fayed Study also found that proper acclimatization can reduce the risk of brain damage.  Reduce, but not completely stop the brain damage.

Brain damage technique.
Brain damage technique.

Ya know those guys who grab that rock at Waimea and run underwater to train for big wave surfing?  Really hard on your brain, too.

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2 thoughts on “Brain Post: Mountain Climbing Kills Brain Cells

    1. You have too many brain cells Sara. It’ll be good for you! Have a blast and send me pics!

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