Does Diving Damage the Brain?

It is well known that compressed gas diving may result in acute decompression sickness and cause permanent injury to the brain and spinal cord. However, the risk of possible injury to the brain in the absence of acute decompression illness is less clear. Because of the controversy over the subject, and the lack of definitive evidence, DAN recently enlisted the help of a group of industry respected experts to provide their insight into the subject and published the results in Alert Diver (1).

The agents of neurologic decompression injuries are gas bubbles (emboli) that occur in tissue, travel with venous blood and may pass from venous circulation into the arterial system. Detectable venous gas emboli are often present after a dive, but they are usually removed through pulmonary capillary filtration. When the emboli pass to the arterial side, they may block arterial flow, causing tissue hypoxia in watershed areas and sometimes damage. The risk of arterialization increases in divers with a large PFO, but it can also occur through pulmonary arteriovenous shunts when there is high load of VGE. For decades this has been raising concern that brain injuries in divers may be more prevalent than previously thought and could potentially occur without a manifestation of acute decompression illness.

bubblesA recent paper published by our colleagues Balestra and Germonpre (2) seems to provide a quite clear answer to the question. The two researchers recruited 200 recreational divers who had never had DCS, and then randomly selected from among them 50 divers for further studies. In addition, they maintained a control group of subjects who had never been diving, and another control group of subjects who had been exposed to neurotoxic solvents. The aim of the study was to establish whether divers have more asymptomatic brain injuries than non-divers, review how divers perform on psychometric tests in comparison to non-divers, and research the possible effect of the presence of a PFO.

Balestra and Germonpre(2) used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate subjects for signs of asymptomatic brain injuries (unidentified bright objects – UBOs), performed echocardiographic tests for PFOs, and gave the subjects a battery of four neuro-psychometric tests. Divers who did not complete all studies were excluded, but 42 of the initial 50 remained in the study.

A significant PFO was detected in 38% of divers. UBOs were detected in 5 (12%) divers. Importantly, there was no correlation between the presence of a PFO and the ending or extent of UBO’s. That is the good news: diving without acute decompression illness does not cause UBOs, which were of concern to many divers and researchers.

Neuro-psychometric testing, however, produced inferior results for divers in two tests in comparison to non-divers, and similar results in comparison to the group exposed to neurotoxic solvents. On two other tests, divers did significantly better than the solvent group. This was not correlated with the presence of PFO. In summary, it appears that divers with five or more years of experience and at least 200 dives, have decreased short term memory and visual-motor performance, which could be a bad news if further studies confirm it.

Another interesting point from this study is that the prevalence of PFOs among study subjects was higher than in general population. The authors hypothesize that this may be due to strenuous intra-thoracic pressure changing activities, such as those encountered in diving, which may “open-up” previously sealed or microscopically small PFO. However, there are many other everyday life situations that raise intrathoracic pressure in similar manner as some dive maneuvers. In our opinion, this finding is of concern when discussing the prevalence of PFO in DCS case series. Even divers without a history of DCS may have greater prevalence of PFO than the general population.

This paper is worth reading and is available for free online at:

  1. Willey J. Effects of diving on brain. Alertdiveronline.
  2. Balestra C and Germonpré P (2016) Correlation between Patent Foramen Ovale, Cerebral “Lesions” and Neuropsychometric Testing in Experienced Sports Divers: Does Diving Damage the Brain? Front. Psychol. 7:696. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00696

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