AFA Study Targets High Altitude Acclimation

Military researchers say our area is the perfect match of the battlegrounds on the other side of the world. Scientists are putting future servicemen and women to the test in our backyard for that very reason.

In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, at an altitude of 7,258 feet, an experiment is underway at the United States Air Force Academy.

"On the first few days, running up the stairs, running around, there is a big difference,” said cadet fourth class, Chris Chorney.

Chorney is one of 79 volunteers, giving his time, and blood to academy researchers looking at how the native Virginian performs physically at higher altitudes.

"Every time they see us we're asking for blood. I'm sure they think we're vampires down here," said MAJ Michael Brothers, Ph.D.

The process takes place in brother’s laboratory deep within the AFA Athletic Center. Brothers is comparing cadets from sea level with those from higher elevation states like Colorado and Wyoming.

The initial response is not surprising.

"The sea level cadets are using more oxygen than the moderate level cadets,” Brothers said. “It's exactly like the moderate altitude cadet is getting 25 miles per gallon and the sea level cadet is only getting 15 miles per gallon, so they're using more energy to do the same amount of work."

Test results seek to answer questions facing a military fighting in enemy territories like Afghanistan, mountainous country 7,000 feet and higher.

Acclimation typically takes up to six weeks and includes side effects like shortness of breath, headache, muscle cramps and nausea.

Psychical risk climbs when the elevation does.

"High altitude cerebral edema where you have water collecting on your brain and lungs which can be life or death issues," Brothers said.

Successful operations demand an advanced solution to that kind of handicap.

"We're writing a whole new chapter on altitude physiology that has direct implications, particularly potential improvements for a vast number of military individuals and civilian individuals that are being deployed," said Brothers.

The research team is looking at a number of factors, including how long it takes their subjects to generate more red blood cells which are key to maximizing oxygen use.

Looking even deeper, some cadets from sea level adapt to the altitude faster than other new cadets, indicating an unexplained process could be going on at a fundamental level.

"When some people adapt more quickly we're looking at genetics of prior residents at altitude, and trying to tease out what those reasons are,” Brothers said.

In the meantime, the volunteer cadets are running harder than their peers as part of the search for answers. They are doing extra duty in the lab, not yet a full time member of the armed forces.

"Just being a part of it. Good results is the whole thing," Chorney said.

Nevertheless, the officers in training are playing a larger part in accomplishing a long-term military mission.

This is a yearlong study. Researchers say the data that’s produced will be shared among military and civilian groups such as the U.S. Olympic teams.

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