The Effect of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy on Cognition, Performance, Proteomics, and Telomere Length

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) increases the amount of oxygen in the body through immersion in high-pressure, oxygen-rich environments to facilitate the healing of damaged tissues. HBOT is an FDA-approved treatment for at least 13 different medical conditions, including:

● Carbon monoxide poisoning

● Decompression sickness

● Anemia

Wound care and wound healing

● Gas gangrene

Delayed radiation injury

● Chronic pain

● Inadequate blood flow

● Migraines

● Osteomyelitis

Therapeutic use of HBTO can also increase physiological performance, including cognition, endurance, protein production, and telomere length. A new article from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center provides clinical evidence for HBOT’s positive effects on individual performance.

About the Subject and Methods of the Case Study

The study compiles the effects of self-administered HBOT therapy on the author and documents changes in brain imaging, cognitive assessment, exercise performance, and blood tests. The subject was an 81-year-old male with a history of coronary artery disease, slight memory decline, and slower cognitive processing speed.

The single subject underwent 60 HBOT therapy sessions over three months, with an average of five sessions per week. HBOT sessions lasted for two hours, including 20 combined minutes for compression and decompression and 100 minutes at pressures of 101kPa. The subject was administered 20 minutes of 100% oxygen at 20–30 liters per minute, with five-minute periods of air in between.

Additionally, the subject performed a validated cognitive training program for 20 minutes prior to each session. He then repeated these assessments for the same length of time while at peak oxygen pressure. Researchers conducted various assessments pre- and post-treatment to compare results.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy and Its Effect on Cognition

Regular hyperbaric oxygen therapy showed significant and sustained improvements in general cognitive performance compared to pre-therapy measurements. Cognitive performance at three weeks post-treatment showed an average 3.1–3.8% increase across all primary functions, including attention, executive function, and processing speed, and a substantial 27.1% relative increase in verbal memory.

Cognitive changes were also evident, likely due to a 43–52% increase in blood flow within major anatomical regions of the cerebrum, including the visual–motor cortex, medial temporal gyrus, and entorhinal cortex. SPECT  (single-photon emission computerized tomography) scans showed an 8.79–16.12% increase in memory centers and a substantial FA (fractional anisotropy) increase in white matter regions.

These findings are consistent with previous research on the cognitive benefits of HBOT. Notably, the current study demonstrated significant increases in delayed verbal memory, increased activity in memory centers, and improvements in structural density of brain tissue. In short, HBOT may show promise as a method to promote genuine neuroplasticity in healthy subjects.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy and Its Effect on Exercise Performance

HBOT therapy also showed moderate physiological and exercise performance increases, including a 10% relative change in anaerobic threshold and a 10% increase in gait speed and grip strength. HBOT also displayed a 3% increase in total lung capacity, corresponding with a 10–15% endurance increase across various tasks. The measurement did not detect any changes in body composition.

More generally, physiological changes match other findings, including a recent study of a cohort of 37 middle-aged athletes who showed increases in oxygen consumption, mitochondrial production in muscle tissue, and overall power.

Additional Read: Effects of HBOT on Physical Performance of Middle-Aged Athletes

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy and Its Effect on Proteomics

HBOT sessions produced a significant drop (~40%) in inflammatory proteins, validating hypotheses that regular HBOT can have sustained anti-inflammatory effects after repeated sessions. HBOT also did not seem to cause similar trends in other protein groups.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy and Its Effect on Telomere Length

Of note were the significant increases in telomere length after sustained HBOT sessions. Measurements confirmed a 66.7% and 119.9% change in the length of lymphocyte telomeres and monocyte telomeres, respectively. These values are significantly higher than results from previous studies focusing on HBOT’s effect on telomere length.

Researchers were unable to determine the mechanism responsible for telomere growth but hypothesize that these changes stem from the hyperoxic/hypoxic paradox, in which intermittent hypoxia triggers higher expression of HIF-1a factors for increased vascular endothelial growth factors and telomere growth.

Key Takeaways from the Study

Although this study provides robust evidence of changes in objective markers following recurring HBOT, it is crucial to point out that the single-subject nature may prohibit generalizing outcomes to larger patient populations.

Additionally, the subject’s professional history using HBOT therapy on post-concussion patients may constitute an optimism bias. However, the presence of objective biomarkers suggests some level of neutrality. This warrants further study.

Other key takeaways from the research include:

● Post-HBOT measurements showed noticeable improvements in general cognitive functioning and an even greater increase in delayed verbal memory. This effect may result from increased perfusion in temporal poles and lingual gyrus.

● HBOT seemed to positively impact the FA measurements of white matter areas in the corpus callosum, fornix, and tapetum. This could reflect higher fiber density, myelination, and more neuroplastic activity.

● HBOT sessions showed a significant increase in exercise performance and strength with no detectable change to body composition. This indicates that the results are due to the increased volume of oxygen consumption.

● Similarly, HBOT therapy may cause elevated mitochondrial biogenesis.

● Telomere growth was significantly higher than markers in previous studies. Researchers hypothesize that the growth resulted from the expression of HIF-1a transcription factors due to intermittent hypoxic exposure.

●  There is a need for more research to determine whether these effects scale and how they affect different age groups and other demographics.

Potential Downsides to HBOT

Like any therapeutic treatment, HBOT has some potential side effects. Common side effects of HBOT include:

● Lightheadedness

● Fatigue

● Dizziness and loss of balance

● Sinus irritation

Most negative effects are temporary and mild, although some can become more serious and long-lasting. Most are related to some kind of oxygen toxicity. More severe side effects from HBOT include:

● Seizures. Excessive oxygen uptake by the nervous system can trigger seizures and convulsions.

● Vision change. HBOT can cause lens contractions, resulting in temporary blurry vision.

● Low blood sugar. Various studies show that HBOT can lead to low blood sugar levels.

● Eardrum rupture. HBOT involves pressure differentials that can cause fluid leaks and other middle ear damage.

● Collapsed lung. Pressure changes in the hyperbaric chamber can also cause lung collapse.

● Claustrophobia. Patients may also report discomfort and claustrophobia after spending time in enclosed hyperbaric chambers.

Who Should Avoid HBOT?

HBOT is a proven therapy for multiple conditions, but it is not for everyone. HBOT can be dangerous to patients and exacerbate certain illnesses or diseases. HBOT is not a good choice for patients who have:

● Lung disease or previous lung injury

● Recently undergone ear surgery or have an existing ear injury

● A fever or a cold

Additionally, HBOT may have pharmacodynamic interaction with different medications. Patients should always speak to their primary care physicians before undergoing HBOT treatment to discuss whether it is the best option.

Additional Read: 9 Essential Factors to Consider When Selecting HBOT Clinic

HBOT from NexGen Hyperbaric

For over 15 years, NexGen Hyperbaric has been providing cutting-edge HBOT treatments and services. We strive to deliver the next generation of accessible medical care through technological advances in HBOT administration.

If you would like to learn more about hyperbaric oxygen therapy, contact us online or call today at (888) 567-4302.