Space Blog | 31. August 2016 | posted by Manuela Braun

Back in saturated air at sea level

Source: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Into the tube: after the descent, all test subjects in the study were given an MRI scan to examine their brains.

The altitude sickness study conducted in the Valais Alps has delivered a sizeable yield: almost 1500 vials containing blood samples from the test subjects, frozen in dry ice at minus 80 degrees Celsius, were transported from the Margherita Hut at an altitude of 4554 metres back down to the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne. There are also just under 200 urine samples, 44 saliva samples and 66 blood counts. The test subjects themselves are also contributing 11 carefully kept 'journals', in which they noted the extent to which they felt symptoms of altitude sickness. Twenty-two measurements of the test subjects' blood pressure and another 22 revealing oxygen saturation levels in their blood are also included in the dataset. For investigator Ulrich Limper this means a detailed evaluation that will take over six months to complete.

Departure from the top station

The test subjects completed their morning ritual for the last time on Monday, 22 August: upon waking, they measured their blood pressure in a supine position and then hopped onto the scales. The investigator in the study drew blood one final time. And then, at 07:00, the first group set off across the glacier accompanied by a mountain guide, and headed for the cable car station in Punta Indren to travel from the vantage point at 1600 metres to the base of the valley. Meanwhile, the second group was busy packing the equipment left at the Margherita Hut: the ultrasound device, crates of samples tucked away in dry ice and luggage. Altogether, 600 kilograms had to be prepared for return transport by helicopter. read more

Space Blog | 26. August 2016 | posted by Manuela Braun

Study routines with ice axe and crampon training

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Storing samples in the ice: first the test subjects use ice axes to create a shelf.

It is 04:00, and outside Margherita Hut the world is pitch black. The clocks of the test subjects in the altitude sickness study sound their alarms. As the first group of mountaineers leave their lodgings for climbing tours in the Valais Alps, the study participants are already busy delivering the first set of data: headaches, quality of sleep, nausea, dizziness. All of these are noted in a daily journal, graded on a scale according to severity. Then they reach for the blood pressure monitor and attach the clip that measures oxygen saturation in the blood to a fingertip. “We’ve all gotten used to it by now,” says DLR investigator Ulrich Limper. The same applies to the subsequent hop onto the scales. Each morning, test subjects record their bodyweight.

The first samples are collected at 04:30. The participants are asked to give blood, saliva and urine. When the samples are analysed at the DLR laboratory in Cologne, it will be important to determine whether protein molecules from the lungs have entered the bloodstream, and whether other protein molecules are present in the urine. These factors would indicate that the hypothesis of the study is accurate: when the body is exposed to reduced atmospheric pressure and a lack of oxygen, inflammation will form in the body that causes the blood vessels to become permeable, hence allowing fluid and proteins to seep from the vessels and into the surrounding tissue. read more

Space Blog | 24. August 2016 | posted by Manuela Braun

When bad news is good news

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Even during the climb, it was apparent who was better suited to the altitude and thinner air.

Some of the test subjects are suffering. The diary of one female student participant records all that one would not want to have – massive headache, severe fatigue, nausea and vomiting, oedema – water retention – in the hands, insomnia. The first symptoms appeared during the climb, as the 10 test subjects first climbed from Alagna in Italy up to the Orestes Hut, and on to the Gnifetti Hut at an altitude of 3647 metres. On Tuesday it was finally time to climb to the final destination – the Regina Margherita Hut situated at an altitude of over 4500 metres.

For the participants with no – or only minor symptoms – of altitude sickness, it was a hike over the Lys Glacier with beautiful views; for the very sick, step by step, with crampons on their shoes and a five-kilogram pack on their backs, it was an arduous walk and anything but pleasurable. But, in this case, bad news is good news – DLR lead investigator Ulrich Limper needs to test subjects whose bodies are reacting to the lower air pressure and lack of oxygen. read more