Acute aerobic exercise impairs aspects of cognitive function at high altitude
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Hypoxia-mediated cognitive dysfunction can be transiently mitigated by exercise in a laboratory-based setting. Whether this effect holds true in the context of high altitude hypoxia has not been determined. We investigated the effect of acute aerobic exercise on cognitive function (CF) at low (1400m) and high altitude (4240m). Fifteen volunteers (24.1±3.5yrs; 9 females) exercised for 20-min at 40-60% of their heart rate reserve at low and high altitude. CF was assessed before and 10-min after exercise using a tablet-based battery of executive function tests. A sea-level control group (n=13; 24.2±2.4 years; 9 females) performed time-matched CF tests to assess the contribution of a learning effects due to repeated testing. Measures of resting CF were unaffected by ascent to high altitude. Following high altitude exercise, performance significantly worsened on the digit symbol substitution task - a test of processing speed, working memory, and visuospatial attention (z=0.01 vs. -0.59, p=0.02, η2=0.35). No effect was found on other measures of CF following exercise. There was no association between changes in peripheral oxygen saturation and changes in CF following high altitude exercise (r=0.22, p=0.44), but higher hemoglobin concentration at high altitude was associated with a decline in CF following exercise at high altitude (r=-0.65, p=0.02). Acute aerobic exercise performed at high altitude impairs some aspects of CF, whereas other CF tests remain unchanged. The strong ecological validity of this study warrants attention and follow-up investigations are needed to better characterize selective impairment of CF with high altitude exercise.
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