A group of scientists from Mayo Clinic have set off for Mount Everest in Nepal to study the performance of nine climbers as they attempt to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain. The athletes will be monitored from the time they leave base camp at 17,500ft above sea level, up to the summit at 29,000 feet and back down again. The climbers will take two different routes.

The purpose of the study is to better aid physiologists in understanding the stresses the body goes through during extreme endurance, such as mountain climbing. It is hoped that the research will aid with treating heart patients.

The mountain’s altitude makes it the perfect natural laboratory for the study of heart disease, lung problems, muscle loss, sleeping disorders, as well as new medical technologies. Above 12,000ft a person, even a trained athlete is already starting to suffer from the lower oxygen in the air, and begins to be under the same kind of duress as a person suffering from heart disease, obesity or advanced aging.

Bruce Johnson, Ph.D, the Mayo Clinic physiologist who is leading the scientific expedition explained :

“We can simulate some conditions in oxygen tents and hyperbaric chambers, but only for short periods … We’re studying the effects of extreme altitude on healthy, active individuals as well as these extreme athletes because what they experience mimics aspects of heart disease.”

Dr. Johnson has travelled far and wide conducting previous experiments, including trips to the South Pole and other mountain ranges. He is joined by physician-researcher Doug Summerfield, M.D., and scientists Bryan Taylor, Ph.D., and Amine Issa, Ph.D. The work is being funded by the equipment make North Face, National Geographic and supported by Montana State University. Live updates will be available via twitter at : #MayoClinic and #onEverest. The trip is expected to last well into May 2012. Mayo Clinic also will send its own reporter to cover the research expedition. Joel Streed of the Mayo Clinic News Network will blog and shoot video from base camp.

Some of the problems they will be able to look into include :

  • Sleep Physiology : Sleep Apnea is a common problem caused mainly by the altitude, but also the cold and sleeping inside a small tent with reduced ventilation. Equipment and clothing may also make sleeping more difficult. Even people in ski resorts sleeping above 12,000ft can suffer from headaches and sickness, due to the altitude. Researchers will look at oxygen levels during sleep and see how it relates to sleep quality.
  • Muscle Loss at High Altitude : Muscle loss is a problem for both heart patients and high altitude climbers. It is thought the problem might be brought on by lack of oxygen, especially during sleep.
  • Lung Fluid Regulation : Another problem for climbers and heart patients alike is Pulmonary edema, fluid in the lungs. It is not clear why altitude brings it on. Some think it is caused by an uneven constriction of blood vessels in the lungs, a response to the lower inspired gas pressures, yet it doesn’t happen to everyone who climbs, so there may be other factors, such as genetic susceptibility. Researchers will look at pressures in the lungs, gas transfer across the lungs and other factors.
  • Remote Monitoring Testing : Medical devices to capture the climbers data will be tested under extreme conditions for the first time, to ensure they are rugged enough to last on regular patients at sea level. If the new devices prove to be reliable, it will help monitor heart patients in the future.

Written by Rupert Shepherd