26 April, 2004

A laboratory Known As Everest


BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, April 26, 2004

Scientists from all over the world come to Nepal to conduct experiments which have long-term conse- quences for humanity. Few of us hear about them. One
such experiment is being conducted by three young women on Everest this summer. Angie Morey, 25, Mara Larson, 24, Lara Vowles, 22 are returning to Nepal for two months to follow up on research which will shed light on issues as diverse as Parkinson’s disease, ways in which to lessen air traffic accidents, and the mission to Mars.

Why do this research on Everest, you may ask? Everest is probably the only place in the world where people voluntarily put themselves in a temporary situation where their brain is deprived of oxygen. Cutting off the supply of oxygen to the brain can lead to brain damage, which is what happens during strokes. It would be ethically wrong to put subjects through oxygen deprivation in a laboratory to see what can happen to their brains under such conditions. Testing climbers on Everest to see what happens to people’s brains when they are deprived of oxygen provides a perfect way out of this ethical dilemma.

People with brain damage have one clear sign of it—slurred or damaged speech. At the core of the three girls’ research lies human language. The sounds that we utter everyday, along with the complex languages that weave our thoughts into ideas, are unique to human beings. No other animal has the power of speech.

Why can human beings speak and apes, our closest genetic neighbors, cannot?
This question has brought forth multiple and contradictory answers. Debates rage in academic institutions in the West about the exact origins of speech. At the heart of this debate is Philip Lieberman, a professor of Cognitive Science at Brown University. Professor Lieberman has been studying the origins of speech since the 1980s.

Professor Lieberman’s scientific curiosity about speech led him to his current research, where he looks at how damage to parts of the brain, including the subcortical basal ganglia, may be remotely monitored by analyzing the sounds of speech. In other words, he is interested in finding out how slurred speech could be the first red flag of brain damage. The National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which funds this project, will apply the findings of the research on oxygen starved brain-behavior to the 2020 mission to Mars.

Lieberman is Angie and Mara’s teacher, and he met Lara, a tour guide who leads treks in Wyoming, on a trip he made with his wife. That’s how the three girls found themselves thrown together in a common project, and now at Everest base-camp.

A team of well-known mountaineers, including Hector Ponce De Leon from Mexico and Andrew Maluish from Australia, who are trying their luck at scaling the world’s tallest mountain, have agreed to participate in the brain study for the sake of science. Discovery Channel is following them with a camera all the way up to the top, creating a cinema verite series on what it feels like to climb Everest. Six minutes of this documentary will be dedicated to the research.

“It was exciting to come and visit a place we had only seen in the map,” says Angie Morey. Last year, the research team recruited various climbing teams attempting to scale Everest to take their tests. Palm Pilots, loaded with a number of tests used by American researchers to test cognition and memory, were handed to the climbers. They were then asked to play games on the Palms at various points during their climb. Games tested the climbers’ memory and retrieval at base camp, and during various points on their climb.

The sentence comprehension tests were designed to look at changes in sequencing of thought and thought shifting. “Most people were pretty accommodating,” says Angie. There were a number of initial problems. For one, the screens of the Palm Pilots froze in the extreme cold.

This time around the researchers have brought new and improved versions of the gadgets, which will hopefully eliminate that problem. Some of the tests were much too long, and these have been shortened. Earlier, the climbers also had to divert from their trails to find optimal places to transmit their data, not the most ideal condition when you are halfway up Everest. Now they can do it from inside their sleeping bags.

The research findings too proved inconclusive, so this year the researchers are back with improved versions of the cognition tests. Further, Angie has also designed her own tests to see how our brain remembers, and also how it retrieves items previously stored in our memory.

The three women, who each bring their own strengths to the table, formed a close bond over the two months they spent in base camp last summer. Although there were some stressful times, they also had fun, says Angie. “There is a lot of downtime while climbers go up and down the mountains, so everybody has to hang out. We would watch movies in people’s tents,” she says.

The women were also recruited to become informal base camp managers after one of the teams fired their manager, and they became adept at downloading $200 weather reports from the Internet and passing it on to the climbers. They also set up a hot lemonade stand to welcome the climbers back, which made them instantly popular with the climbing crowd.

The young researchers are not averse to combining research with adventure. Mara and Angie ended up running a marathon organized for the fiftieth anniversary of the ascent of Everest. “There were about 30 Nepalis, and us,” says Mara. “We were the only Westerners, and the only women.” The marathon, which Angie completed in six hours and 48 minutes, started at base camp and went down to Namche, and then back. “I was a bit surprised,” says Angie smiling. “I was expecting my legs to hurt, but only my feet did.” Not only did the girls take part in the marathon, but this year they have official permission to climb a smaller mountain, Lobuche East, which compared to Everest is only a mere 20,000 feet high.

Scientific research of this type is done in increments, with people building upon each other’s work. Similarly, scientific funds also go a long way, with money ostensibly meant for some abstract cause rebounding for mass benefit. The Internet started out as a communications net for the U.S. military, and has now become a worldwide fixture. In a few years from now, the research on Everest may not just save an astronaut from flying his craft into the side of an asteroid. It might also provide the information to build a devise that warns a man that his slurred speech is a red flag of an impending stroke, and help devise a prevention mechanism for Parkinson’s disease.

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