Washington: Pilots, who fly at high altitudes, may be at an increased risk for developing brain lesions, according to a new study.
For the study, 102 U-2 United States Air Force pilots and 91 non-pilots between the ages of 26 and 50 underwent MRI brain scans.
The scans measured the amount of white matter hyperintensities, or tiny brain lesions associated with memory decline in other neurological diseases. The groups were matched for age, education and health factors.
Study author 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 that 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.
He explained that 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.
McGuire asserted that to date however, they have been unable to demonstrate any permanent clinical neurocognitive or memory decline.
Symptoms affecting the brain that sometimes accompany decompression sickness include slowed thought processes, confusion, unresponsiveness and permanent memory loss.
The study found that pilots had nearly four times the volume and three times the number of brain lesions as non-pilots.
The results were the same whether or not the pilots had a history of symptoms of decompression sickness.
The research also found that while the lesions in non-pilots were mainly found in the frontal white matter, as occurs in normal aging, lesions in the pilots were evenly distributed throughout the brain.
The study has been published in the print issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.