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Eye Vessels Leak At High Altitudes, Study

Update Date: Jun 04, 2013 06:02 PM EDT

A new study reveals that exposure to high altitude could cause retinal vessel leakage.

Researchers say that being in high altitude can cause acute mountain sickness (AMS) and, in severe cases, cerebral or pulmonary edema.

"Capillary leakage has been hypothesized to play a role in the pathogenesis of AMS, although the mechanism of altitude-related illnesses remains largely unknown," wrote Dr. Gabriel Willmann, M.D., of the University of Tubingen, Germany, and colleagues, according to a news release.

"Vessel leakage in the retinal periphery has not been investigated. Our objective was to assess retinal vessel integrity at high altitude using fluorescein angiography," he explained.

The study involved 14 healthy, unacclimatized participants with an average age of 35.  The participants were studied at baseline at 1,119 feet and after ascent to 14,957 feet within 24 hours, and more than two weeks after return by fluorescein angiography.

The photographs were then indepently graded in random order by four ophthalmologists for presence and location of leakage.  Researchers found no evidence of retinal abnormalities at baseline in any of the participants.  However, marked bilateral leakage of peripheral retinal vessels was found in 50 percent of the participants at high altitude.  However, researchers noted that the retinal abnormalities reversed after descent.

"Retinal capillary leakage should be considered a part of the spectrum of high-altitude retinopathy," researchers concluded.

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