How Much Can Human Bodies Take?
Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard
Inside a 12-foot-square room at the University of Oregon, it can be summer all year long.
But it also can be the equivalent of a winter day in International Falls, Minn., or a steamy day in a tropical jungle, or any day at the top of a mountain.
The $300,000 environmental chamber is the latest addition to a research program that's helping scientists better understand the body's reaction to all sorts of conditions and find better treatments for everything from sleep apnea to high blood pressure to acute altitude sickness.
"The human body is always being challenged by the environment it's exposed to," said John Halliwill, a professor of human physiology at the UO. "Using this chamber, we're going to be able to really explore the human condition."
The chamber is just the most recent evidence that the UO's department of human physiology, all but given up for dead as little as 10 years ago, not only has a heartbeat but is thriving. It has attracted a cadre of award-winning young researchers, has almost $4 million in research grants and has seen its enrollment leap from about 50 to more than 400.
Today, its researchers are exploring how musicians learn the precise finger movements needed to play a string instrument, looking for new ways to help stroke victims regain mobility, measuring the effects of concussion and how soon an injured person should return to sports or other activities, researching the potential of exercise to treat high blood pressure and more.
"The rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated," said professor Gary Klug, the department head.
The new environmental chamber opens up even more opportunities for advanced research. Funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense and a private gift, the chamber allows researchers to simulate altitudes up to 18,000 feet and precisely control temperature and humidity in a wide range.
That allows scientists to, for example, study the neurotransmitters involved in blood flow to the skin during heat stress and perhaps come up with ways to help the body better tolerate exercise and other activity in hot, moist climates. It also can let researchers look at whether athletes get any advantage from sleeping in a low-oxygen environment equivalent to being at high altitude.
Those things are difficult to study when you have to depend on weather and geography to provide the laboratory environment.
"It's hard to get weather on demand," Halliwill said during a recent demonstration of the chamber. "Instead of taking the lab to the mountain, we have brought the mountain to the lab."
UO researchers are still tweaking the chamber but expect to begin studies and collect data soon. They currently have a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study sleep apnea, a disorder in which a sleeping person stops breathing for brief periods repeatedly during the night.
The room is large enough to house a treadmill or other exercise equipment to study the effect of exercise and oxygen levels on hypertension and how lack of oxygen affects mountain climbers. …