How do extreme altitudes affect the human brain on Mount Everest?

How do extreme altitudes affect the human brain on Mount Everest?

How Do Extreme Altitudes Affect the Human Brain on Mount Everest?

Mount Everest, popularly known as the highest peak on earth, standing at a staggering height of approximately 8,848.86 meters (29,031.7 feet), poses significant physical and psychological challenges that mountaineers have to conquer. The awe-inspiring exploration of Mount Everest is undeniably a substantial achievement; however, the journey to the apex is not without its risks, particularly on the human brain.

Effects of Extreme Altitudes on The Human Brain

Critical changes in atmospheric pressure, oxygen deprivation and cold temperatures experienced at extreme altitudes all predispose climbers to numerous medical conditions.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

At extreme heights, the atmosphere’s oxygen concentration decreases, causing hypoxia, a condition characterized by an inadequate oxygen supply to the body’s cells. Hypoxia induces AMS which manifests as headaches, vomiting, tiredness, nausea and sleep disturbances.

The brain responds to hypoxia by enhancing blood flow, which increases capillary pressure leading to a leakage of fluids into the brain tissues, causing cerebral edema. Consequently, the brain swells and exerts pressure on the skull, leading to headaches. If untreated, AMS may progress to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and potentially cause coma or death.

High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)

HACE is the most severe form of AMS and is life-threatening. It occurs when brain swelling becomes excessive, leading to confusion, clumsiness, and stumbling – the first signs of ataxia. Climbers afflicted with HACE typically present with an altered mental state and show behaviour that is inconsistent with their normal selves. For instance, mountaineers might start hallucinating, become disoriented or even present with the symptoms of a stroke.

The Psychophysiological Impact of Altitude

Due to the combination of physical stress, oxygen depletion and the isolative and dangerous nature of high-altitude environments, mountaineers are susceptible to various psychological effects. These include mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, and, in some severe cases, a psychological phenomenon known as “mountain madness” – a form of temporary psychosis that includes symptomology similar to schizophrenia.


Humans can adapt to high altitude through acclimatization, where the body slowly adjusts to the decreasing oxygen levels, helping to mitigate the potentially damaging effects of low oxygen levels on the brain.


The extreme altitudes of Mount Everest pose deadly challenges to mountaineers, not only to their physical health but to their cognitive and psychological well-being too. While AMS and HACE are severe conditions that can be life-threatening, the brain demonstrates remarkable resilience and adaptability that enables seasoned climbers to ascend and descend this incredible natural marvel.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How does climbing Mount Everest affect the brain?

The reduced oxygen levels at high altitudes can result in hypoxia, causing Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), characterized by headaches, nausea and dizziness. In severe cases, it can lead to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), a life-threatening condition due to brain swelling.

2. What is hypoxia?

Hypoxia refers to a condition in which there is not enough oxygen available to the cells and tissues in the body. With a significant decrease in oxygen concentration at extreme heights, climbers can experience hypoxia.

3. Can hypoxia cause severe brain damage?

Yes, prolonged hypoxia can cause severe, often irreversible brain damage as the cells fail to get the necessary oxygen to perform essential processes. Prompt medical intervention is necessary to prevent permanent damage from hypoxia.

4. Can the human body adapt to higher altitudes?

Yes, through a process known as acclimatization, the body can gradually adjust to the decreased oxygen levels at high altitudes, lessening the impact of hypoxia on the brain and other tissues.

5. Can one experience psychological effects due to high altitudes?

Yes, besides the physical stress of reduced oxygen levels, climbers often face psychological effects. These can include mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, and in some instances, a temporary psychosis known as “mountain madness”.