Morphological Brain Changes after Climbing to Extreme Altitudes—A Prospective Cohort StudyReport as inadecuate

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Findings of cerebral cortical atrophy, white matter lesions and microhemorrhages have been reported in high-altitude climbers. The aim of this study was to evaluate structural cerebral changes in a large cohort of climbers after an ascent to extreme altitudes and to correlate these findings with the severity of hypoxia and neurological signs during the climb.


Magnetic resonance imaging MRI studies were performed in 38 mountaineers before and after participating in a high altitude 7126m climbing expedition. The imaging studies were assessed for occurrence of new WM hyperintensities and microhemorrhages. Changes of partial volume estimates of cerebrospinal fluid, grey matter, and white matter were evaluated by voxel-based morphometry. Arterial oxygen saturation and acute mountain sickness scores were recorded daily during the climb.


On post-expedition imaging no new white matter hyperintensities were observed. Compared to baseline testing, we observed a significant cerebrospinal fluid fraction increase 0.34% 95% CI 0.10–0.58, p = 0.006 and a white matter fraction reduction -0.18% 95% CI -0.32–-0.04, p = 0.012, whereas the grey matter fraction remained stable 0.16% 95% CI -0.46–0.13, p = 0.278. Post-expedition imaging revealed new microhemorrhages in 3 of 15 climbers reaching an altitude of over 7000m. Affected climbers had significantly lower oxygen saturation values but not higher acute mountain sickness scores than climbers without microhemorrhages.


A single sojourn to extreme altitudes is not associated with development of focal white matter hyperintensities and grey matter atrophy but leads to a decrease in brain white matter fraction. Microhemorrhages indicative of substantial blood-brain barrier disruption occur in a significant number of climbers attaining extreme altitudes.

Author: Raimund Kottke , Jacqueline Pichler Hefti , Christian Rummel, Martinus Hauf, Urs Hefti, Tobias Michael Merz



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