WASHINGTON – Tiny brain lesions are vastly more common in U.S. Air Force pilots who fly at high altitudes than in nonpilots, according to a study released Monday.
The findings in the journal Neurology describe an analysis of 102 pilots who fly U-2 reconnaissance aircraft at an altitude of some 70,000 feet (21,000 meters).
These pilots, age 26 to 50, had nearly four times the volume and three times the number of brain lesions as nonpilots, the study reported.
The lesions were spotted whether or not the pilots reported having the symptoms of decompression sickness.
Nonpilots had some lesions, too, associated with normal aging. However, they were mainly in the frontal white matter, while the lesions in high-altitude pilots were evenly distributed throughout the brain.
Still, the impact of these lesions remains unclear.
“The risk for decompression sickness among air force pilots has tripled from 2006, probably due to more frequent and longer periods of exposure for pilots,” said study author Stephen McGuire of the University of Texas in San Antonio and the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.
“To date however, we have been unable to demonstrate any permanent clinical neurocognitive or memory decline.”