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QA with Damian Bailey Studying dementia from atop Mount Everest

Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country Yesterday, mountaineer Richard Parks set out for Kathmandu to begin some highly unusual data-gathering. As part of Project Everest Cynllun, he will climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and perform—on himself—a series of blood draws, muscle biopsies, and cognitive tests. If he makes it to the summit, these will be the highest-elevation blood and tissue samples ever collected.Damian Bailey, a physiologist at the University of South Wales, Pontypridd, in the United Kingdom and the project’s lead scientist, hopes the risky experiment will yield new information about how the human body responds to low-oxygen conditions, and how similar mechanisms might drive cognitive decline with aging. As Parks began the acclimatization process with warm-up climbs on two smaller peaks, Bailey told ScienceInsider about his ambitions for the project. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 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Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) Q: Parks is an extreme athlete who has climbed Everest before. What can his performance tell us about regular people? A: What we’re trying to understand is, what is it about Richard’s brain that is potentially different from other people’s brains, and can that provide us with some clues to accelerated cognitive decline, which occurs with aging [and] dementia. We know that sedentary aging is associated with a progressive decline in blood flow to the brain. … And the main challenge for sedentary aging is we have to wait so long to see the changes occurring. So this is almost a snapshot, a day in the life of a patient with cognitive decline.Q: Why Everest? Isn’t this something you could study experimentally in the lab? A: Conducting experiments in the field is of course extraordinarily challenging, because you’ve got a combination of a whole range of stressors. It’s all about deprivation—the lack of sleep, the cumulative effects of that on the human body, the lack of good nutrition, even though good nutrition may be available, the loss of appetite. …  All of these add up to an environment that is almost impossible to recreate in the laboratory. And certainly one … that would be very difficult to get ethical approval for, of course.Q: If there’s all of these co-occurring stressors, how will you try to parse out the effects of each? A: Back in sunny South Wales, we’ve got an environmental chamber, which is based at sea level. What we can do there is recreate some of the environmental conditions that Richard would encounter during the ascent to high altitude. We’ve focused primarily on exercise, cold, and lack of oxygen, to understand what each of these stimuli do in terms of its impact on Richard’s psychology and physiology.We of course didn’t simulate the summit of Everest, because that would be ethically impermissible—within 3 minutes Richard would be unconscious. But within the confines of safety, we’ve simulated a number of altitudes on the mountain that would allow us to compare some of the measurements, where we’ve actually planned to make these measurements on the mountain, with the comparative measurements in the chamber.Q: What sort of cognitive data will you be taking on Parks, and what are you hoping it will tell you?A: We’ll be running a number of standard batteries of cognitive function tests … that we’ve shown before in hypoxia to be impaired. We’ll assess memory, attention, concentration, visuomotor coordination, and also executive function. … It will be a challenge to get Richard to perform this at very high altitudes himself, but we’ve got some very neat specialist software to get around that.Q: Were there any legal or ethical issues you ran up against in conducting the study? A: Yep, the project has been submitted to the human research ethics committee at the university. …  Above the Khumbu Icefall [at about 5500 meters], we can’t make any guarantees that people are going to be able to stay with Richard throughout, [so] there will be self-collection. These are experiments that Richard has provided his consent to do.Ethics submissions never go seamlessly. They’re never accepted off the bat, they always come back with more questions than you were thinking yourself. … And of course Richard is insured, and we’re looking to maximize his health and safety. … What we mustn’t lose sight of is that Richard wants to do the oxygenless ascent regardless. So by having a variety of scientific measurements that are made alongside the ascent, it’s actually probably going to make it a safer expedition in many ways.

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