Many people who go into the air force are unaware of the fact that they are at a much greater risk of experiencing an uncommon type of brain lesion. New studies are offering more information on these types of lesions.
This article by Reuters discusses a poorly understood type of brain lesion which occurs three times as often and four times more often in air force pilots as in other people. In a new study research found that the lesions appeared on brain scans of an elite group of U-2 high altitude aircraft pilots.
A doctor of the Air Force School told Reuters, “Normal young healthy adult brains have few (lesions), as we have demonstrated in our control group.” The pilots in the study had lesions referred to as white matter hyperintensities. On brain scans these show up as bright spots; they occur as a result of reduced blood flow. Similar results often occur when a person experiences some kind of head trauma.
"The pilots from the study regularly fly at 64,000 feet and can go higher than 70,000 feet. The altitude at that point is so high that pilots can see the curvature of the Earth and the dividing line between night and day. At such high altitudes cabin pressure in spy planes is around 28,000 to 30,000 feet."
Pilots flying at such high altitudes are also at a greater risk of decompression sickness; in this situation decreasing pressure allows bubbles of gas to form in the blood and can lead to temporary slowed mental processing or permanent cognitive decline. In the study pilots who regularly fly spy planes were compared with regular military personnel and spy plane pilots had three times as many cases of brain lesions.
In the pilot control group of the study the lesions were all over the brains of pilots thus showing that they were not only from aging. In general, brain lesions can be caused by numerous things and the authors of the study are instructing the public to be careful. One doctor told Reuters, “Being spots of cellular damage, white matter hyperintensities can be caused by many things- inflammation, infection, disease, trauma, vascular problems like small strokes, low oxygen, low glucose, or low air pressure.