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J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2013 Aug;33(8):1286-94. doi: 10.1038/jcbfm.2013.83. Epub 2013 Jun 5.

Investigation of whole-brain white matter identifies altered water mobility in the pathogenesis of high-altitude headache.

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Extremes Research Group, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd, UK.


Elevated brain water is a common finding in individuals with severe forms of altitude illness. However, the location, nature, and a causative link between brain edema and symptoms of acute mountain sickness such as headache remains unknown. We examined indices of brain white matter water mobility in 13 participants after 2 and 10 hours in normoxia (21% O2) and hypoxia (12% O2) using magnetic resonance imaging. Using a whole-brain analysis (tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS)), mean diffusivity was reduced in the left posterior hemisphere after 2 hours and globally reduced throughout cerebral white matter by 10 hours in hypoxia. However, no changes in T2 relaxation time (T2) or fractional anisotropy were observed. The TBSS identified an association between changes in mean diffusivity, fractional anisotropy, and T2 both supra and subtentorially after 2 and 10 hours, with headache score after 10 hours in hypoxia. Region of interest-based analyses generally confirmed these results. These data indicate that acute periods of hypoxemia cause a shift of water into the intracellular space within the cerebral white matter, whereas no evidence of brain edema (a volumetric enlargement) is identifiable. Furthermore, these changes in brain water mobility are related to the intensity of high-altitude headache.

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