Brain Damage from High Altitude Mountaineering

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The author in thin air

Are the Mountains Killing Your Brain?
Alarming new science shows that thin air can wreck brain cells—at lower altitudes than you’d think. Here’s how to protect yourself.

Douglas Fields
“YOU HAVE TO BE poco loco to be a climber,” says Dr. Nicholás Fayed. A neuroradiologist at the Clinica Quirón de Zaragoza, in northern Spain, Dr. Fayed leads me into his office and pulls out a collection of MRI images. They’re brain scans, taken from amateur and professional mountain climbers after they came back from major expeditions, and the results aren’t pretty.
“Atrophy of the frontal lobes,” Fayed says, pointing to a black-and-white slice of brain on one MRI. The frontal cortex—the region just behind the forehead that handles higher-level mental functions—looks like a piece of dried fruit. This kind of damage can leave patients with an impaired ability to plan, focus, and make complex decisions. And it’s permanent…

See:  Outside Magazine


  1. PM on January 22, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Douglas, sorry to comment on an old piece. I read your Outside piece and the Dr Fayed study with interest. I don’t think any other study has since replicated his findings (abnormal neurological findings on return from moderate to high altitude). 8000m peaks aside, the evidence is not particularly strong – there was a more recent Kottke study on a Nepali 7000er where they found changes in brain white matter fraction, but the acclimatisation profile didn’t seem great for the cohort (9 days or something to get to 6000m+). Dr Peter Hackett seems somewhat dubious about the Fayed study too from a methodological perspective e.g. lack of pre departure MRI. The limited evidence means I am finding it hard to gauge the personal risk of climbing Kilimanjaro or Elbrus. It’s a fascinating area of medicine anyway so thanks for the food for thought.

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