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Gail Rosenbaum Interview with Gail Rosenbaum

NOVA: What have you seen in hypoxic [oxygen-deprived] patients?

Rosenbaum: What we see generally in a hypoxic patient is that the brain simply is devastated as far as being able to solve problems, remember things—short-term memory, long-term memory. There's a real global response, usually. They have difficulty learning lists of words, seeing a picture and remembering how to draw it, organizing. All kinds of things can be compromised.

NOVA: Explain for us a little bit about the psychometric tests, what they are meant to determine, and what you expect to see happen as the climbers go higher.

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Rosenbaum: Well, we do expect to see some slowing in thinking. Basically the premise would be the higher you go, the slower you think. And so what we'll do is measure the difficulty with which the climber begins a task. If he has some difficulty initiating a response, we'll be timing that—difficulty also in the length of time it takes him to complete a task and also then the problems within the task. If he makes errors in repeating a simple sentence or he can't—he has difficulty processing information—and some of the stuff is very, very easy and simple to process at low levels, for example, something like "rats are made in factories," makes perfect sense and is definitely false at sea level, but who knows how long it's going to take to come to that conclusion at 20,000 feet.

NOVA: What do you know about other elements that will be affecting the climbers? What about just the cold and the demoralization, just having no energy? How much does that affect these results and how can you take that in account?

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Rosenbaum: There are going to be lots of factors that we won't be able to take into account as the climbers are climbing. We're going to try to test the people at Base Camp and also others—everybody along the way. But we still won't be able to take into consideration, for example, the lack of sleep which will be a factor, feeling awful, lack of energy, just a general malaise or fatigue that may creep in. They may be cold. They may be angry. They may be depressed. The weather is bad for four days. We may have seasonal affective disorder. Who knows. There may be any number of things that can contribute here. But overall we'll be looking at the slowing of the processing and not really looking at what is causing it necessarily. But if, in fact, we see slowing in the processing, that tells us something. We don't know why it's happening, but we do know that it is occurring.

NOVA: Could you then take a leap and say that in a life and death situation when some expedition leader has to make a decision as to whether you continue to go up to the summit—are your tests going to potentially help the scientists determine whether the judgment of a climber could be extremely affected by altitude?

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Rosenbaum: I think we would need a larger sample in order to determine how judgment is affected. I think, depending on what we find on a smaller level, we need to look very, very carefully at some of these very simple things that we have people do and see, in fact, whether it does take them longer to solve problems, whether they are making errors really in very simple things at high altitude, and then with a large enough sample we can probably make some observations about the fact that judgment may or may not be impaired at altitude.

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