US Navy funds research to help divers tackle oxygen toxicity

Image: Dr Blair Johnson, University at Buffalo
Image: Dr Blair Johnson, University at Buffalo

The US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) is funding research to combat the threat that oxygen toxicity presents for special operations divers at depth and pressure.

Breathable air consists primarily of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, but the ratio of gases can become hazardous the deeper that divers plunge.

The divers use a closed-circuit rebreather that filters out the gases in such a way that bubbles don’t appear on the water’s surface.

But it increases how much oxygen the divers breathe and, combined with mission stress and physical exertion, can lead to seizures, convulsions, nausea, dizziness and even coma or death – all symptoms of oxygen toxicity.

A professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, Dr Blair Johnson, is focusing on the human body’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls the instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response – the physical reaction to an attack, survival threat or perceived harmful event – to maintain proper heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and body temperature.

“Recent evidence suggests that hormone levels critical to maintaining breathing and heart function drop sharply when someone is immersed underwater,” said Dr William D’Angelo, who manages ONR’s Undersea Medicine Program.

“Dr Johnson’s groundbreaking research will expand on how water immersion triggers oxygen toxicity.”

Johnson and his team built a special water-immersion tank in the University at Buffalo’s Centre for Research and Education in Special Environments, where scientists can study simulated extreme environments-like breathing different gas mixtures underwater.

During the experiments, volunteers sit in the tank for four hours, with their head and one arm above water. They endure changes in water temperature, and breathe air through a rebreather that contains 100 per cent oxygen. Their dry arms are outfitted with sensors to measure vital signs.

Johnson’s research is unique because his team also sticks acupuncture needle-like microelectrodes directly into nerves-a process called microneurography. This allows them to measure real-time impulses to muscles, skin and blood vessels-and record reactions to shifts in water temperature as well as breathing high levels of oxygen and other gas mixtures.

“It has been shown that breathing 100 per cent oxygen on land reduces sympathetic nerve activity, heart rate and blood pressure, which could lead to oxygen toxicity in the water,” said Johnson.

“How does that apply to someone immersed in water? What impact does cold water have? What impact does breathing different gas mixtures have? We’re looking at all these factors to prevent or mitigate oxygen toxicity risk.”

Johnson’s research is the first to directly measure sympathetic nerve activity through microneurography with someone immersed in water and breathing different gas mixtures.

Each of his 50 volunteers will participate in up to eight immersion sessions. Afterward, Johnson will evaluate the data to come up with potential preventative measures against oxygen toxicity.

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