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Research Study Seeks Remedy for High Altitude Illness

“This project is especially important to me because it applies to a real problem — the ability of special operations forces to fulfill their orders in extreme environments.” — John Davis

<em>John Davis</em>John DavisFor 20 years, John Davis and Alma College students have explored the effects of high altitude exposure on humans. In his next study, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, Davis will test interventions for protecting U.S. Army Special Forces from the stress of high attitude.

“With little notice, special operations forces like those in Afghanistan are often transported from low to high altitude in a helicopter, dropped off and expected to perform demanding tasks right away,” says Davis, Alma’s Dana Professor of Integrative Physiology and Health Science.

“However, high altitude illness poses a significant problem,” he says. “It is not uncommon for troops rapidly exposed to high altitude to develop mild to moderate symptoms of acute mountain sickness, such as light-headedness, headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath.”

Controlled Study Tests Common Medications

Lower oxygen levels typically cause acute mountain sickness, or AMS, says Davis, and the faster one ascends to high altitude, the more likely one will experience symptoms. AMS can be problematic for special operations forces that are trained to perform unconventional missions, such as reconnaissance and counter-terrorism, immediately upon arrival in a high-altitude location.

AMS normally affects 25 percent of un-acclimated visitors to altitudes between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, and 42 percent at 10,000 feet, says Davis. It increases to 80 percent at 16,000 feet.

<em>John Davis, in a previous study, tests cardiovascular response in individuals at high altitude.<br><br></em>John Davis, in a previous study, tests cardiovascular response in individuals at high altitude.

The Alma study will test the effectiveness of four common medications designed to prevent AMS at altitudes above 10,000 feet. About 100 male subjects, ages 18-30, will participate in the “double blind, placebo controlled study,” which means the subjects will not know what medication they are receiving, with one set of subjects receiving a placebo.

Research Subjects Being Recruited

The subjects will do a series of physical and cognitive tests at sea level to establish a baseline response. Then, 48 hours after being administered the oral medications, they will be flown to Colorado and transported immediately to high altitude, where they will follow a strict regimen of tasks designed to simulate physical activity required of special operations forces. On the second day, they will do a three-mile run with a 30-pound pack to simulate a military style field operation.

“We are in the process of recruiting subjects who meet specific guidelines for health and fitness,” says Davis. “We will be taking 10 to 12 groups to Breckenridge, Colo., for three-day trips in July, August and September.”

Data that assesses their physical performance and cognitive function at high altitude in comparison with sea level will be analyzed to determine if specific experimental treatment groups performed better than those in the placebo group.

Real Problem: Survival in Extreme Environments

The study is part of a collaborative project with principal investigators Robert Roach and Andrew Subudhi at the University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center. The research design was approved by the University of Colorado and Alma College’s Institutional Review Board, which provides oversight to research involving human participants and ensures that guidelines that protect the rights and safety of these participants are followed.

“As an altitude physiologist, I have done a lot of research over the years on how people respond to high altitude,” says Davis. “This project is especially important to me because it applies to a real problem — the ability of special operations forces to fulfill their orders in extreme environments.”

Davis has devoted much of his academic career to studying how humans adapt to living at high-altitude environments. He took his first group of students to Colorado in 1997. He also has involved students in research in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador.

Davis is still accepting applications for human subjects for this project. If interested, please contact him at: davisj@alma.edu, (989) 463-7158.

Story published on June 13, 2016