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November 21 , 2002

Mile-high without the climb

Photo: Kinesiology and health science student Jason Talanian tries out the new hypoxic chamberThough they're only on the second floor of Solano Hall, people in the kinesiology department's human performance lab sometimes feel like they've climbed to the top of a mountain. That's because the lab now sports a new hypoxic chamber that allows faculty researchers to simulate high-elevation conditions in sea level Sacramento.

It can mimic conditions at elevations as high as 14,000 feet, nearly the height of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.

The $25,000 chamber, which arrived over the summer, offers students learning opportunities they wouldn't find at other California universities. "We're the only school I know of in UC or CSU that has one," says kinesiology professor Roberto Quintana. He and colleague Daryl Parker study the effects of high-elevation on human performance.

At sea level, air is 21 percent oxygen, but by the time you get to 9,000 feet, oxygen content is down to 16 percent. To re-create the low oxygen conditions found at elevation the nine- by five-foot chamber uses a filter to that "scrubs out" oxygen from the interior and keeps outside oxygen from entering.

The chamber is large enough to accommodate exercise assessment equipment as well as a stationary bicycle or a set of steps for the exercise portion of their experiments.

Quintana says they first plan to use the new setup to study mountaineering and acute mountain sickness. "Acute mountain sickness negatively affects mountaineering performance and can lead to more severe conditiona known as HAPE, high altitude pulmonary edema, and HACE, high altitude cerebral edema," he says. "The use of gingko biloba has been shown to reduce acute mountain sickness. We're going to add exercise to the mix and see if using gingko biloba still results in a reduction of acute mountain sickness and improves mountaineering performance at an altitude of 14,000 feet."

Later Quintana, Parker and recreation and leisure studies professor Kevin Tatsugawa plan to replicate their experiments in the field, probably at Mt. Whitney and at Denali National Park in Alaska. Outside magazine has expressed an interest in the results.

Along with looking at how altitude affects mountaineering performance and acute mountain sickness, Quintana and Parker also want to investigate changes in metabolism and oxygen transport. The result could have implications in the treatment of diabetes and understanding of basic limitations to oxygen transport.

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