White matter integrity in high-altitude pilots exposed to hypobaria

Stephen A. McGuire, Goldie R.E. Boone, Paul M. Sherman, David F. Tate, Joe D. Wood, Beenish Patel, George Eskandar, S. Andrea Wijtenburg, Laura M. Rowland, Geoffrey D. Clarke, Patrick M. Grogan, John H. Sladky, Peter V. Kochunov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


INTRODUCTION: Nonhypoxic hypobaric (low atmospheric pressure) occupational exposure, such as experienced by U.S. Air Force U-2 pilots and safety personnel operating inside altitude chambers, is associated with increased subcortical white matter hyperintensity (WMH) burden. The pathophysiological mechanisms underlying this discrete WMH change remain unknown. The objectives of this study were to demonstrate that occupational exposure to nonhypoxic hypobaria is associated with altered white matter integrity as quantified by fractional anisotropy (FA) measured using diffusion tensor imaging and relate these findings to WMH burden and neurocognitive ability. METHODS: There were 102 U-2 pilots and 114 age- and gender-controlled, health-matched controls who underwent magnetic resonance imaging. All pilots performed neurocognitive assessment. Whole-brain and tract-wise average FA values were compared between pilots and controls, followed by comparison within pilots separated into high and low WMH burden groups. Neurocognitive measurements were used to help interpret group difference in FA values. RESULTS: Pilots had significantly lower average FA values than controls (0.489/0.500, respectively). Regionally, pilots had higher FA values in the fronto-occipital tract where FA values positively correlated with visual-spatial performance scores (0.603/0.586, respectively). There was a trend for high burden pilots to have lower FA values than low burden pilots. DISCUSSION: Nonhypoxic hypobaric exposure is associated with significantly lower average FA in young, healthy U-2 pilots. This suggests that recurrent hypobaric exposure causes diffuse axonal injury in addition to focal white matter changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)983-988
Number of pages6
JournalAerospace Medicine and Human Performance
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • U-2 pilots
  • White matter integrity
  • hypobaric exposure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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