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High Altitudes May Put Pilots At Risk of Brain Lesions

Update Date: Aug 19, 2013 04:05 PM EDT

Flying at high altitudes may put pilots at risk of brain lesions, a new study suggests.

The latest study published in the journal Neurology involved 102 U-2 United States Air Force pilots and 91 non-pilots between the ages of 26 and 50. The two groups were matched for age, education and health factors.

Participants underwent MRI brain scans, which measured the amount of white matter hyperintensities, or tiny brain lesions associated with memory decline in neurological diseases.

The study found that pilots had nearly four times the volume and three times the number of brain lesions as non-pilots.  Researchers said the findings were the same whether or not the pilots had a history of decompression sickness.

"Pilots who fly at altitudes above 18,000 feet are at risk for decompression sickness, a condition where gas or atmospheric pressure reaches lower levels than those within body tissues and forms bubbles," study author Dr. Stephen McGuire, MD, with the University of Texas in San Antonio, the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, said in a news release.

"The risk for decompression sickness among Air Force pilots has tripled from 2006, probably due to more frequent and longer periods of exposure for pilots. To date however, we have been unable to demonstrate any permanent clinical neurocognitive or memory decline," he added.

Symptoms that accompany decompression sickness may include slowed thought processes, confusion, unresponsiveness and permanent memory loss.

The study also found that the lesions in non-pilots were mainly found in the frontal white matter, which occurs in normal aging, whereas the lesions in pilots were evenly distributed throughout the brain.

"These results may be valuable in assessing risk for occupations that include high-altitude mountain climbing, deep sea diving and high-altitude flying," McGuire concluded.

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