Oxygen Deprivation: Therapeutic Upside

Two papers just came out on what’s called intermittent hypoxia (IH), both showing a strong link to nerve restoration. Hypoxia simply means the state of being deprived of adequate oxygen supply; when you arrive in Aspen from sea level you are hypoxic until your body adjusts. When you exercise vigorously, you are hypoxic and you adjust your rate of respiration accordingly.

Scientists have been studying hypoxia for many years and figured out 15 years or so ago that sequences of intermittent lack of oxygen initiate neural plasticity – the ability of nerves to grow and connect in new ways. What this means is that animals in experiments gained significant breathing strength after being trained, so to speak, with intermittent IH.

What happens? The scientists think it goes like this: hypoxia triggers a novel form of spinal plasticity that depends on the neurotransmitter serotonin. This seems to strengthen pathways to respiratory motor neurons by a mechanism known as phrenic long-term facilitation (pLTF). As this occurs, the system also makes an important protein called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This growth factor plays a major role in several forms of synaptic plasticity.

Many papers note the IH effect, and usually offer up the possibility that this seemingly simple therapy could help people with chronic spinal cord injuries.