How do high-altitude residents and deep-water divers thrive where others cannot?
UBC Professor Phil Ainslie’s research has taken him from extreme mountain peaks, to the wild edges of the globe and to the cold depths of the ocean. His quest is to understand why and how some thrive in conditions that make the average person extremely ill, according to a UBCO news release.
A Canada Research Chair in Cerebrovascular Physiology in Health and Disease, Ainslie has spent his career studying hypoxia—reductions in oxygen tension, content (hemoglobin) or both. When the brain and other organs are deprived of oxygen or blood, a person may become ill, suffer permanent damage or even die.
Understanding the physiology and genetics of human hypoxia tolerance has important medical implications, says Ainslie, a professor in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences.
“So far this phenomenon has been poorly investigated in high-altitude human populations such as Nepal’s famous Sherpa, and to an even lesser extent in unique populations of free-hold divers,” he said. “Some of the freedivers we’ve studied can hold their breath a remarkable 25 minutes. And they willingly put themselves in the most severe state of hypoxia for either spear-fishing or breath-holding competitions.”
While working with some of the world’s best free divers based in the Mediterranean, Ainslie’s team explored how their lungs, hearts and brains respond to extreme reductions in oxygen tension, and how they were able to train their bodies to withstand such pressures.
In a study published this spring in Experimental Physiology, his team outlined the relevant physical characteristics and mechanisms that make extreme breath-holds possible for people participating in competitive apnoea. Ainslie states a better understanding of these factors during seemingly insurmountable voluntary breath-hold situations is relevant for many reasons including a safety and medical point of view.
“This kind of research is not only important to the elite breath-hold divers, but also for people who live with progressive lung issues from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD—which includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and several strains of asthma), heart failure or people who go into intensive care,” Ainslie says. “This research is important for any groups who have changes in blood flow that affect the delivery of oxygen to various organs as these affect their pathology, their quality of life and their doctor’s ability to treat them.”
The eventual goal of Ainslie’s globetrotting is to understand how some populations can adapt (or maladapt) to their natural habitat, with the aim of coming up with new methods for prevention and treatment of such illnesses.
Conducting research at different altitudes, and on people who have lived at high altitude their entire lives, has led Ainslie and his team to more than 100 research publications related to medicine and physiology. Over the past 15 years, Ainslie and his international team of researchers have travelled to the Himalayas numerous times to study the high altitude-adapted Sherpa population. Research has also taken place at White Mountain, California, and Croatia with free-hold divers. The team is now about to embark on a trip to Peru.
UBC Okanagan PhD candidate Mike Tymko, is organizing the large-scale Peru expedition. While there, the team of more than 45 co-investigators will spend a month at Cerro de Pasco, a mining town at 4,330 metres. Along with several high-altitude studies that will be conducted on native low-landers, they will also work with a group of Andeans who have developed a genetic mutation and live at high altitude with a condition called chronic mountain sickness.
They will conduct 15 research projects involving several different stressors, including pharmacological and exercise interventions.