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Studies held at Pikes Peak

Scaling new heights in science takes on a whole new meaning each summer for U.S. Army scientists who travel to Colorado to test how environmental factors, such as cold and altitude, affect soldiers’ performance.

“In general, the better we understand how a soldier responds to a particular environment, with respect to both physical performance and susceptibility to illness, the better we can prepare him for that environment,” said Dr. Allen Cymerman, a research physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute for Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), an installation partner at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

Cymerman was among the researchers returning from a six-week stay in Colorado Springs. At the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak, in the John Maher Memorial Laboratory, a team from USARIEM annually conducts studies with volunteers in July and August.

With data in hand, USARIEM researchers return to the Soldier Systems Center, interpret the results and then disseminate them through published biomedical journals, technical reports and information papers, all of which ultimately impact Army doctrine.

Army leaders are quick to turn to USARIEM’s 35 years of research for answers, said Sgt. Dave DeGroot, research assistant at USARIEM.

When the United States entered Afghanistan last fall, the 18th Airborne Corps’ surgeon tapped USARIEM’s Drs. Cymerman, Stephen Muza and Charles Fulco to provide information papers on what troops should expect in the cold mountains of the region.

In a collaborative study conducted this spring and summer with scientists from the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Medical Center, researchers conducted baseline, sea-level tests on 18 men from the Palo Alto, Calif., area in March and April. In July, the research volunteers traveled to the summit for two weeks to burn 1,500 calories a day more than they consumed to test the effect of antioxidant supplements and carbohydrate drinks on physical and mental performance at altitude.

Pikes Peak
Two human research volunteers exercise atop Pikes Peak during a study to test the effect of antioxidant supplements and carbohydrate drinks at altitude.

“The theory is that oxidative stress may contribute to the development of acute mountain sickness, but an antioxidant supplement with vitamins A, C and E, plus selenium and zinc may improve how someone feels and adapts to altitude,” Cymerman said. “The carbohydrate drink study tested the hypothesis that carbohydrate supplementation during an exercise test at altitude will improve physical performance.”

Studies like this add to USARIEM’s body of knowledge but also show the impact collaborative partnerships offer the Army and the civilian sector. This year marks the third and final year of a series of studies between USARIEM and the Palo Alto VA Medical Center.

Keeping the research volunteers at a negative caloric balance meant exercising continuously, DeGroot said. The group, including researchers, embarked on hikes in the Rocky Mountains, where they encountered cool temperatures, 40 mph winds and fast-developing thunderstorms. Additionally, a 16-foot by 32-foot tent was erected to house treadmills, exercise bikes and weight training equipment to keep the 18 volunteers moving. Research volunteers were tested on everything from their breathing, to their physical and mental performance, to their food intake.

Despite the rigorous tests and workouts, the volunteers did not have to rough it in the mountains. The Maher Lab, a mid-1960s construction named for a former director of USARIEM’s Altitude Research Division, boasts one large and two small labs, two bunk rooms for subjects and researchers, a kitchen and dining area as well as bathrooms and laundry facility.

Researchers descended Pikes Peak pleased with the preliminary information they gleaned for warfighters.

“This year’s study examines if an antioxidant supplement will reduce the incidence and severity of acute mountain sickness, and if a carbohydrate supplement improves exercise performance at altitude,” Cymerman said. “As appropriate, this information will be included in future guidance that we provide to the rest of the Army.”

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