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Published Online: 30 December 2009

Changes in Pupil Dynamics at High Altitude—An Observational Study Using a Handheld Pupillometer

Publication: High Altitude Medicine & Biology
Volume 9, Issue Number 4


Wilson, Mark H., Mark Edsell, Chris Imray, Alex Wright, and the Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society. Changes in pupil dynamics at high altitude—an observational study using a handheld pupillometer. High Alt. Med. Biol. 9:319–325, 2008. Gross pupil dynamics are used as an indirect measure of brain function. Changes in hypoxia and intracranial pressure are thought to alter pupil responses to light. This study assessed a portable handheld pupil measuring device (pupillometer) in the field investigating the changes in pupil size, speed of reaction, and rate of constriction/dilatation with hypoxia induced by changes in altitude. A correlation between pupil dynamics and acute mountain sickness was sought. Seventeen volunteers were studied following acute exposure to 3450 m and then during a trek to 4770 m in Ladakh, India. The pupillometer was used to record maximum and minimum pupil diameter in response to a standard light source with calculation of latency, constriction and dilatation velocities. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) was recorded using Lake Louise self completed questionnaires both in the morning and afternoon on each day. Acute altitude exposure resulted in a significant reduction of percentage change in pupil size (36.5% to 24.1% p = <0.001), significant delay in pupillary contraction (latency; 0.208 to 0.223 seconds p = 0.015) and a significant slowing of the rate of contraction (constriction velocity; −2.77 mm/s to −1.75 mm/s p = 0.012). These changes reverted to normal during a period of acclimatization. A significant diurnal variation in pupil size was also observed. There was no significant difference between subjects with and without AMS. The handheld pupillometer is a suitable robust tool for monitoring changes in pupil dynamics in the field. With acute exposure to hypobaric hypoxia associated with an ascent to a moderate altitude, there is a general slowing of pupil function which reverts to normal within a few days of acclimatization. There appears to be a marked diurnal variation in pupil size. The measurements clearly demonstrated an effect of hypoxia on cerebral function, but these changes did not relate to moderate AMS.

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cover image High Altitude Medicine & Biology
High Altitude Medicine & Biology
Volume 9Issue Number 4December 2008
Pages: 319 - 325
PubMed: 19115917


Published online: 30 December 2008
Published in print: December 2008


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Mark H. Wilson
The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, London, UK.
Mark Edsell
The Hammersmith Hospital, London, UK.
Chris Imray
Warwick Medical School, UHCW NHS Trust, Coventry, UK.
Alex Wright
The Medical School, University of Birmingham, UK.
and the Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society

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