APNEA DIVING: LONG-TERM NEUROCOGNITIVE
SEQUELAE OF REPEATED HYPOXEMIA
Lynne Ridgway and Ken McFarland
University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, Australia
This article examines the neurocognitive sequelae of repeated exposure to hypoxemia in
apnea (breath-hold) divers. A brief review of the literature on the physiological and neuro-
logical adaptations involved in the ‘‘human diving reflex’’ is presented. The results from a
neuropsychological investigation of N ¼ 21 elite apnea divers are evaluated. Standard
neuropsychological tests, with known sensitivity to mild brain insults, included speed of
visuo-motor responding, speed of language comprehension, response inhibition, and visual
and verbal attention and recall tasks. Results indicated that the breath-hold divers
performed tasks within the average range compared to norms on all tests, suggesting that
1–20 years of repeated exposure to hypoxemia including multiple adverse neurological
events did not impact on performance on standard neuropsychological tasks. The results
are discussed in relation to implications for clinical conditions such as sleep apnea, respir-
atory disorders, altitude sickness, and recreational apnea activities.
The increasingly popular apnea sports provide neuroscience with an interest-
ing, naturalistic opportunity to examine the effects of repeated acute and chronic
hypoxemia in otherwise healthy individuals. The 2002 world freediving champion-
ships in Hawaii attracted 92 elite apnea divers from 22 countries participating in
dynamic (depth-diving) and static (at rest) events. With the current world record
for an unassisted, constant weight dive at 93 meters, and the static breath-hold rec-
ord at 8 minutes 10 seconds, and the record holders demonstrating apparently intact
physiological and cognitive functioning, there is much to learn about how the human
brain and body adapt to low oxygen states. This article briefly reviews apnea sports
and compares the neurocognitive profiles observed in 21 apnea divers to observa-
tions from clinical, occupational, and recreational conditions involving a reduction
in the supply of oxygen to the brain.
Apnea Sports: Background
Underwater apnea activities include synchronized swimming, underwater
hockey, underwater rugby, big wave surfing, underwater photography, monofin
Address correspondence to Lynne Ridgway, Ph.D., Scholar Clinical and Neuropsychology,
c=School of Psychology, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, 4072, Australia. Tel.: þ617
33935756. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Accepted for publication: September 30, 2004.
The Clinical Neuropsychologist, 20: 160–176, 2006
Copyright # Taylor and Francis Ltd.
swimming, spearfishing, and competition freediving. The sports group currently uti-
lizing the most rigorous training methods, and setting apnea records in dynamic and
static conditions, are competitive freedivers.
Adverse neurological events reported during apnea sports include ‘‘shallow
water blackout’’ (loss of consciousness, LOC) from rapid atmospheric pressure
changes encountered at different depths, cognitive difficulties, and occasional
temporary loss of motor control (LMC). Competitive freedivers have coined the term
‘‘samba’’ to describe the phenomena of temporary LMC. As observed by the first
author, the brief (5–10 second) LMC can occur immediately post breath-hold and
involves a bilateral motor tremor accompanied by a rapid, fine bobbing of the head.
During a samba, or LMC, the freediver is conscious, aware of the tremor, and is able
to respond to verbal commands (can give a compulsory ‘‘OK’’ signal to judges).
The etiology of this temporary LMC post breath-hold has not been studied in elite
freedivers. Possible explanations include changes to the interneuronal GABAergic
pathways and a tendency for seizure activity in the post-ischemic or post-hypoxic brain
(Sloper, Johnson, & Powell, 1980). Alternately, the samba may be synonymous with the
‘‘jerky tremor’’ observed in carbon dioxide retention (Kelman, 1980).
Many clinical, comparative, and experimental studies have been conducted
examining the physiological aspects of extreme human breath hold activities
(Ferretti, 2001; Ferretti & Costa, 2003, for a comprehensive review). However, no
specific studies have been published that examine the acute or chronic neurocogni-
tive sequelae of repeated apneas with occasional temporary LMC or LOC in other-
wise healthy adults. Clinical evidence that LOC or epileptic activity is observed when
brain damage is in the severe spectrum (Auer & Sutherland, 2002) would suggest
poorer neurocognitive outcomes in divers who had experienced multiple episodes
of LMC or LOC.
Apnea Sports: Physiological and Neurological Considerations
A careful distinction needs to be made between ischemia, hypoxia, and hypo-
xemia (see Auer & Sutherland, 2002, as an excellent text reference). Ischemia refers
to impaired blood flow (as occurs in heart failure); consequently, oxygen delivery is
impaired and waste products are not removed from cells. Hypoxia is a non-specific
term meaning low oxygen in the atmosphere, blood, or tissues. Hypoxemia refers
only to low levels of oxygen in the blood from whatever cause (Auer & Sutherland,
With pure hypoxemia (as occurs in diving mammals), only oxygen delivery is
impaired, not waste removal, as cerebral blood flow is maintained or, more usually,
increased during hypoxic events (Auer & Sutherland, 2002). This distinction helps
explain why uncomplicated hypoxemia in a living organism does not by itself
give rise to brain cell death. During ischemia, neuronal necrosis appears, and
hypoxia then modulates the degree of damage (Miyamato & Auer, 2000). This
robust finding is demonstrated using the often-cited Levine rat model (Levine,
1960) where, following unilateral carotid artery ligation and subsequent exposure
to hypoxia (8% oxygen), the rat brains exhibited neuronal necrosis ipsilateral to
the ligation only (Nagata et al., 2000).
APNEA DIVING: NEUROCOGNITIVE SEQUELAE 161
Clinically, in humans, the difference between hypoxemia and ischemia is con-
siderable. Cerebral ischemia of only 2 minutes can cause neuronal death, whereas a
pure hypoxemic coma of 2 weeks is usually followed by complete recovery (Auer &
Sutherland, 2002). Conditions that may lead to pure hypoxemia, uncomplicated by
ischemia, may include environmental causes such as rapid exposure to high altitude
or clinical disorders such as sleep apnea. Of all the organs in the body, the brain,
representing only 2% of total body weight, is the most metabolically hungry, con-
suming 20% of the body’s oxygen (Sokoloff, 1976). This high metabolic usage ren-
ders the brain extremely sensitive to rapid changes in oxygen pressure. Table 1
illustrates the clinical changes occurring at varying levels of alveolar pressures of
oxygen (PAO2) from changes in inspired air at different altitudes above sea level.
Several studies have demonstrated that cerebral oxygen metabolism remains
normal in humans experiencing arterial oxygen pressures (PAO2) of 35–40mmHg
(Cohen, Alexander, Smith, Reivich, & Wollman, 1967; Kety & Schmidt, 1948) and
even at arterial oxygen pressures of (PAO2< 30mmHg) sufficient to cause loss of
consciousness and slow EEG waves (Shimojya, Scheinberg, Kogure, & Reinmunth,
1968). Thus, if neither neuronal necrosis nor impaired neuronal metabolism can
explain changes in clinical status during hypoxemia, the logical question becomes,
What are the mechanisms of changes to behavior and cognitive functioning during
hypoxemia? Recent investigations have focused on the role oxygen plays in neuro-
transmitter functioning and synaptic changes. In particular, GABAergic (Sloper
et al., 1980) and acetylcholine (Gibson, Pulsinelli, Blass, & Duffy, 1981) transmitters
appear to be affected, although these changes are reversible in days to weeks,
coinciding with clinical recovery from pure hypoxic events (Auer & Sutherland,
2002). Gibson and colleagues conclude, ‘‘... mild hypoxia impairs brain function
because it impairs the metabolism of central neurotransmitters...’’ (Gibson et al.,
Comparative physiology studies have concluded that the physiological and bio-
chemical traits important to surviving low oxygen states evident in diving animals
such as seals and sea lions are highly conserved in all vertebrates (Hochachka,
2000). These traits, collectively known as the ‘‘diving response,’’ include the body’s
ability to hold breath (apnea), slow the heart rate (bradycardia), differential constric-
tion or dilation of blood vessels throughout the body according to importance (per-
ipheral vasoconstriction), and the ability to shift to alternate metabolic pathways
Table 1 Effect of hypoxia on function of human brain (Adapted from Gibson et al., 1981, with
Altitude (ft)PAO2(mm Hg)Clinical status
Impaired dark adaptation of retinal rods and cones
Impaired concentration & short term memory; hyperventilation
Lethargy, euphoria, irritability, hallucinations, impaired critical
judgment, muscular incoordination
Loss of consciousness
Note. PAO2¼ Alveolar oxygen pressure.
162LYNNE RIDGWAY AND KEN MCFARLAND
according to oxygen availability (hypometabolism of hypoperfused tissues). In all
aquatic mammals and birds, blood flow during a dive is restricted or eliminated in
peripheral organs (eg., skin, hands, and feet), allowing blood, and therefore oxygen,
to be distributed preferentially to the central nervous system (Zenteno-Savin,
Clayton-Hernandez, & Elsner, 2002).
Thus, we know that during hypoxemia, peripheral vasoconstriction acts like
the body’s own triage system, allowing blood, and therefore oxygen, to be redirected
according to most critical need, to the heart, lungs, and brain. Similarly, within the
brain, there are several compensatory mechanisms utilized when challenged by
hypoxemic conditions (see Auer & Sutherland, 2002 for a review). First, general cer-
ebral blood flow is increased through vasodilation. Second, more oxygen is extracted
from the blood, and third, hemoglobin gives up its oxygen more readily (the Bohr
effect). Finally, increased capillary density has been observed in brains exposed to
chronic hypoxia as in adaptation to high altitude (Boero, Ascher, & Arregui,
1999; LaManna, Vendel, & Farrell, 1992). Together, these adjustments mean that
the brain’s chemical balance achieves a steady state and events during hypoxemia
‘‘...do not progress beyond a reversible pathophysiological state of electrical failure
and early energy failure...the consequence that the stage of tissue necrosis is never
reached in the brain in hypoxemia’’ (Auer & Sutherland, 2002, p. 245). In a review of
extreme breath-hold diving, Ferretti (2001) concluded that elite divers demonstrated
the occurrence of some adaptive mechanisms that allow the prolongation of apnea
and the preservation of oxygen stores during dives.
Apnea Sports: Cognitive and Behavioral Considerations
While the neuropathologists (Auer & Sutherland, 2002) declare that there is no
neuronal death from prolonged hypoxemia without ischemia, evidence primarily
from aviation and respiratory medicine suggests that there are some disturbing acute
cognitive and behavioral changes evident when humans are exposed to low levels of
First, with a rapid drop of alveolar oxygen pressure to severe levels
(<30mmHg) there may be a dulling of consciousness and memory impairment unless
there is sufficient time for adaptation, with inspired oxygen lowered gradually (Auer
& Sutherland, 2002; Gibson et al., 1981). Second, there is some evidence of post-
hypoxic seizures (Auer & Sutherland, 2002). In addition, there is anecdotal evidence
of people claiming to experience changed cognitive functioning during even mild
(alveolar pressure of oxygen 60–45mmHg) hypoxia (Gibson et al., 1981). Table 2
illustrates some popular terms used to describe changes in behavior and cognition
observed in humans in etiologically different low oxygen states.
Early reviews on the psychological effects of hypoxia concluded that there was
conflicting evidence of sensory, performance and cognitive difficulties during
hypoxic states (Tune, 1964). Reviews of the neuropsychological effects of hypoxia
have concluded that acute and chronic exposure to hypoxia reveals a range of
cognitive and behavioral deficits (Caine & Watson, 2000; Rourke & Adams, 1996).
There is some evidence for impaired cognitive functioning associated with acute low
oxygen levels occurring in recreational activities like high altitude mountain climbing
(Cavaletti & Tredici, 1993; Hornbein, Townes, Schoene, Sutton, & Houston, 1989;
APNEA DIVING: NEUROCOGNITIVE SEQUELAE163
Table 2 Some qualitative descriptors of cognitive and behavioral changes observed in humans during low oxygen states
Cognitive or behavioral changes reported
Inattentiveness, poor, judgment,
Adams et al., 1997; Grant et al., 1987
Persistent short-term memory
impairment. Problems of sustained
attention and verbal ability
Gozal et al., 2001; Lewin et al., 2002;
Naegele et al., 1998; Redline et al., 1997
Commercial and defence
Psychomotor difficulties. Frequent
tracking errors, poor concentration,
vision, and coordination
Ernsting, 1984; Russell, 1948;
Sausen et al., 2001
Abalone divers (New Zealand)
‘‘Feel distant and fatigued’’
A. Drake, personal communication,
April 13, 2003
Japanese ama divers
9=16 had stroke-like accidents,
motor and sensory abnormalities
Kohshi et al., 2001
‘‘HAS’’ high-altitude stupid
Judgment, decision errors. Poor
memory, orientation, mood,
Auer & Sutherland, 2002; Hornbein et al.,
1989; Ryn, 1971
‘‘AMS’’ acute mountain
Headache, fatigue, lassitude, dizziness
Roach & Hackett, 2001
‘‘Taravana’’ to fall crazily
Polynesian pearl divers
Dizzy, visual disturbance, paralysis
‘‘Shallow water blackout’’
Apnea divers and spearfishers
Loss of consciousness often
associated with depth pressure changes
Sipperly & Mass, 1998
‘‘Samba’’ loss of motor control
Elite apnea divers
Brief bilateral motor tremor, esp.
hands and head, and unfocused gaze
Author observations. Freediving
World Championships 2002
‘‘Apnea brain’’ or ‘‘Mooglie’’a
Elite apnea divers
Poor verbal fluency and production
errors, slow information processing
Canadian Freedive Team,
October 29, 2002
Note.aVerbal production error. A fully conscious Canadian diver emerged post long-duration breath-hold and had meant to say ‘‘Man, that was ugly.’’ Instead,
the neologism ‘‘Mooglie’’ was uttered and has been adopted by the team to describe any ‘‘uncomfortable’’ breath-hold.
Townes, Hornbein, Schoene, Sarnquist, & Grant, 1984), in occupational pursuits
such as high altitude flying (Ernsting, 1984; Sausen, Wallick, Slobodink, Bower, &
Clarke, 2001) and apnea diving (Kohshi, Katoh, Abe, & Okudera, 2001), as well
as in animal models and medical conditions (see Table 2 for summary).
While there are obvious differences between a reduction of oxygen in inspired
air at altitude and breath-holding at sea level, there are also significant differences in
the onset and duration of hypoxic conditions between mountaineers and apnea div-
ers. Mountaineers experience gradual onset (hours to days), long-duration hypoxic
episodes (days to weeks), whereas apnea divers have rapid onset (seconds to min-
utes), shorter duration (minutes) acute, repetitive (approximately 5–20per day)
epochs. The gradual onset, longer duration would seem to favor the mountaineers
as having better opportunity for adaptation to low-oxygen conditions. However,
the absolute level of hypoxemia experienced across both conditions is similar. Data
from 3 elite apnea divers found hemoglobin oxygen saturation levels (SaO2) dropped
to between 60 and 57% for the final 60 seconds of 5-minute breath-holds (Stewart,
Bulmer, & Ridgway, 2003), making the severity of hypoxemia equivalent to alveolar
oxygen pressures (PAO2) of around 35mmHg or the blood gas levels experienced by
mountaineers at heights greater than 20,000 feet above sea level.
The existence of persisting or cumulative effects of hypoxia is unclear, with
some studies reporting persisting cognitive impairment after resolution from hypoxic
conditions (Hornbein et al., 1989; Naegele et al., 1998; Regard, Oelz, Brugger, &
Landis, 1989; Townes et al., 1984), and others reporting no significant cognitive
impairment once hypoxic conditions have resolved (Clarke, Heaton, & Wiens,
1989; Jason, Pajurkova, & Lee, 1989). In a retrospective interview survey conducted
on 16 professional Japanese breath-hold divers, researchers found evidence for tran-
sient neurological symptoms occurring during or after dives (Kohshi et al., 2001).
The most common symptoms reported were unilateral motor weakness, (7 of 16
cases) and sensory abnormalities (4 of 16 cases), with 13 of the divers reporting
occasional episodes of dizziness, nausea, and=or euphoria. The study concluded that
deep breath-hold dives may be harmful and cause brain involvement (Kohshi et al.,
2001). This study did not report on the long-term neurocognitive status of the divers.
There is additional evidence for impaired neurocognitive functioning in chronic
clinical conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnea (Beebe, Groesz, Wells, Nichols, &
McGee, 2003; Gozal, Daniel, & Dohanich, 2001; Lewin, Rosen, England, & Dahl,
2002; Redline et al., 1997), and chronic obstructive airways disease (Adams, Victor,
& Ropper, 1997; Grant et al., 1987).
The common diagnostic criteria for sleep apnea is if the person experiences
apneas of at least 10 seconds each at a frequency of more than 30 times per 7-hour
sleep period (Association of Sleep Disorders Centers and Association for the Physio-
logical Study of Sleep, 1979). In severe sleep apnea, patients may experience periods
of >60 seconds without a breath resulting in an oxygen saturation (SaO2) level of
<50% (Kaplan & Sadock, 1998). Some of the cognitive sequelae reported include
memory difficulties (Ewing et al., 1980; Stuss, Peterkin, Guzman, & Troyer, 1997;
Wilson, 1996), executive dysfunction (Wilson, 1996), praxic disorders, affective
disregulation, poor verbal fluency (Armengol, 2000), slowed psychomotor proces-
sing and motor speed, (Berry et al., 1989), and vigilance or attentional difficulties
(Ewing et al., 1980; Stuss et al., 1997). However, in a comprehensive metanalysis
APNEA DIVING: NEUROCOGNITIVE SEQUELAE 165
of studies of people with untreated obstructive sleep apnea Beebe and colleagues
(2003) found evidence for impairments in vigilance, executive functioning, and
motor coordination but not for intellectual, verbal, or visuo-perceptual skills.
One area of the brain often espoused to be selectively vulnerable to transient
alterations to normal functioning is the hippocampus (Lishman, 1998; Zola-Morgan,
Squire, & Amaral, 1986). With the hippocampus involved primarily in new learning
and memory (Adams et al., 1997), difficulties in those aspects of functioning during
hypoxic events would be expected. Several animal models have linked neurotrans-
mitter changes in the hippocampus as an explanation of hypoxic memory deficits
(Furling, Ghribi, Lahsaini, Mirault, & Massicotte, 2000; Mazer et al., 1997; Row,
Goldbart, Gozal, & Gozal, 2003; Wang, Zhou, Shao, & Tang, 2002).
The complication with many published neuropsychological studies and reviews
of deficits supposedly caused by hypoxia is that they utilize patient samples with dif-
fering etiological factors including CO poisoning, cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest,
near hangings, and drownings. These conditions clearly involve mechanisms such
as cerebral ischemia or toxicity in addition to reduced oxygen supply to the brain.
Thus, it is hard to conclude what the exact etiology of any revealed neuropsycholo-
gical deficits could be. Aside from the clinical mechanisms that differ between these
conditions, additional psychological factors experienced in chronic life-threatening
illnesses confound these studies by potentially impacting on the results of neuropsy-
chological testing (McSweeny & Labuhn, 1996).
Thus, the current research into the long-term neurocognitive sequelae from
repeated hypoxemia in a group of otherwise healthy sports persons provides an
excellent opportunity to examine any deficits occurring in the absence of ischemia
and other medical variables or psychological distress. One goal of this current study
was to examine whether repeated apneas, with occasional adverse neurological
events, of high frequency and long duration would lead to poorer cognitive func-
tioning on standardized tests. Anecdotal reports from the divers suggest that there
are a variety of acute cognitive and neurobehavioral changes experienced during
and immediately post breath-holding but that there are no recognized long-term
Standardized, valid, and reliable neuropsychological tests were selected to
attempt to capture the anecdotally and previously reported cognitive and behavioral
difficulties summarized in Table 2. Selection of baseline neuropsychological assess-
ments was guided by the following criteria. Tests had to be brief enough to allow
multiple cognitive domains to be covered in around 60 minutes, have known sensi-
tivity to minor interruptions to neurological functioning, be objectively reliant on
diver performance thus reducing possible experimenter bias, and have multiple
equivalent forms allowing follow-up testing for later studies examining the acute
effects of hypoxemia. A list of the tests selected with references for administration
and psychometric properties is provided in Table 3. A new task, a brief explicit mem-
ory task, was developed following observations during a feasibility study indicating
that divers had difficulty laying down new memories during, and in the first minutes
after an extended breath-hold. Equivalent forms of a 4-item visual display were
constructed, each depicting three pictures from a standardized, matched, familiar
set (Snodgrass & Vanderwart, 1980) and a single common 4-letter word printed in
166 LYNNE RIDGWAY AND KEN MCFARLAND
Additionally, basic neurological observations with known sensitivity to
hypoxia were devised (Dr. R. Boyle, personal communication, August 2002). These
included asking the divers to perform visuomotor tracking and balance and coordi-
nation tasks. Divers were scored according to 3 categories: (a) Able to complete task
with no difficulty, (b) Completes task but slow or unsteady, and (c) Has great dif-
ficulty or cannot complete. Finally, the National Adult Reading Test-2 (Nelson &
Willison, 1991) was selected as an estimate of previous stable intellectual ability.
The value of the test lies in the high correlation between reading ability (accuracy
of pronunciation) and intelligence in the normal population (Spreen & Strauss,
It was hypothesized that elite divers with more years practicing apnea diving
would score lower on neuropsychological tests compared to standardized norms.
Further, a cumulative effect was hypothesized such that the greater the number of
negative neurological events experienced (diving-related blackouts, loss of motor
control episodes, and previous concussions) by the divers, the worse their current
performance would be on standard tests of neuropsychological functioning.
Participants were volunteer elite freedivers recruited via Australian and inter-
national organizers of apnea diving competitions (Association International for
the Development of Apnea, AIDA). Only participants who spoke English as a first
language were included in the study. The group consisted of 10 Australians,
4 Americans, and 7 English freedivers. There were 12 male divers and 9 female
divers. Table 4 presents demographic and apnea dive related data for the 21
No payment was offered to divers for their participation. An elite diver was
defined as a person who had been selected by their country to compete at an inter-
national championship level. With the exception of one 36-year-old diver from the
UK, all divers were non-smokers. All divers were in good physical health with no
current medical or health concerns. Three divers reported having had a brief
concussion during childhood. None of the divers had experienced a negative
Table 3 Information and assessment tools in baseline protocol
Assessment protocolDetails=reference for psychometric properties
Demographic data collection
Basic neurological observations
NART-II National Adult Reading Test
WAIS-R Digit Span Test
Symbol Digit Modalities Test
Trail Making Test part A & B
Controlled Oral Word Assoc. (FAS)
4-Item explicit memory tas
Age, sex, education, medical, and sport history
Visual-motor tracking, coordination=balance
Nelson & Willison, 1991
Spreen & Strauss, 1998
Reitan & Wolfson, 1985
Spreen & Strauss, 1998
Baddeley, Emslie, & Nimmo-Smith, 1992
Psychology Dept., University of Queensland
APNEA DIVING: NEUROCOGNITIVE SEQUELAE 167
neurological event (LOC or LMC) within the 7 days prior to testing. With the excep-
tion of a 68-year-old male participant, all were currently engaged in intensive apnea
training at the time of testing.
An information sheet was issued to all divers, coaches, and judges. Divers com-
pleted a demographic questionnaire including details of body measurement, edu-
cation, sporting involvement, and basic medical history.
Testing in this study was conducted poolside, in conditions simulating as
closely as possible the competition environment, where further assessments
examining the acute effects of extended breath-hold activity were planned. Hence,
assessments were conducted at public pools with natural background noise. The
diver sat opposite the examiner at a desk facing away from the public. A material
screen was erected around the testing station to prevent direct visual contact with
other divers or officials during the assessment. Divers were asked to follow their
usual pre-dive protocol by abstaining from alcohol for 12 hours before testing.
Divers had not engaged in any breath-hold activity for 12 hours prior to the baseline
assessment. Divers were first asked to read the information sheet and complete the
demographic and consent forms.
The order of administration of the neuropsychological tasks was fixed in the
sequence indicated in Table 3. Standard neuropsychological tests were administered
according to the author=publisher instructions. For the 4-item memory task, divers
were asked twice to name each picture and read aloud the word. The stimulus
material was removed from sight and divers were asked again to repeat the 4 items
and asked to remember them for recall a few minutes later.
Table 4 Demographic information for N ¼ 21 (m ¼ 12; f ¼ 9) elite apnea divers
Divers age in years
Years of education
Years breath-hold diving activity
Recent competition dive depth achieveda
Recent competition static time achievedb
NART-II predicted IQ
LMCcepisodes reported ¼ approximate
Totalenumber of ?ve neurological events
aDive depth in meters.
bStatic time in minutes.
cLMC-Loss of motor control. Divers reported their approximate number of ‘‘sambas.’’
dLOC-Loss of consciousness from ‘‘shallow water blackout.’’
eTotal number of negative neurological events in life, includes previous concussions, head injury, and
168LYNNE RIDGWAY AND KEN MCFARLAND
As the main neuropsychological tests have standardized published norms, each
diver’s standard score for each test was calculated. Thus, where available, individual
scores were converted to scaled scores to adjust for age, gender, and years of edu-
cation. Standardized Z scores were calculated for each diver on each test as follows:
National Adult Reading Test ¼ Full-Scale IQ predicted from number of errors;
Digit Span ¼ total correct Forward and Backward digits recalled; FAS ¼ total
correct words generated for each phoneme in 60 seconds; Modified Stroop ¼ time
taken on final color-incongruent-words trial; Silly Sentences—Form A ¼ number
completed in 2 minutes; Symbol Digit Modalities Test ¼ number of correct substitu-
tions in 90 seconds; Trail Making Test Part B ¼ time taken (including error correc-
tions); Memory task ¼ number of items correctly recalled after a 5-minute delay.
For the neurological observations divers were scored according to 3 categories: (a)
able to complete task with no difficulty; (b) completes task but slow or unsteady;
and (c) has great difficulty or cannot complete.
To allow an examination of differences between divers with less years experi-
ence or less number of negative neurological events, two grouping variables were cre-
ated. First, years of apnea experience was used to create a grouping variable, with
Group 1 being divers who had had less than 4 years experience (n ¼ 9) and Group
2, divers with between 4 to 20 years experience (n ¼ 12). Similarly, a second group
variable, negative neurological events (NNE), was formed with 3, approximately
equal, groups: Group 1, divers who had between 0 and 2 NNE (n ¼ 8); Group 2, div-
ers who had experienced between 3 and 5 NNE (n ¼ 7); and Group 3, divers who
had experienced 6 or greater NNE in their lives (n ¼ 6).
Prior to analysis, data from neuropsychological tests and demographic vari-
ables were examined using SPSS. Distributions of scores were found to fit with mul-
tivariate assumptions. Missing data for 2 divers on the SCOLP and Stroop were
replaced using the series mean (Tabachnick & Fidell, 1996). Univariate outliers
detected on age and the number of years engaged in breath-hold activity were
retained in the analysis as they were deemed genuine cases from the intended popu-
lation sample and they did not significantly skew the distribution of scores (Tabach-
nick & Fidell, 1996). Thus, no cases were deleted from the analysis.
To confirm that the administration of the NART-II was legitimate for the mul-
tinational participants, two statistical procedures were used. First, an examination of
the correlation between the divers’ scores on the NART-II and the diver’s level of
education revealed a significant Pearson’s correlation (r ¼ .64, p < .01). Second,
divers were divided into two groups according to country of birth: Group 1,
Australia, (n ¼ 10), Group 2, UK or United States (n ¼ 11), and data for
NART-II, education, years engaged in apnea activity, and NNE were analyzed for
differences. No significant differences between the groups by country were found
(F(1,18)¼ 2.72, ns). There were significant correlations between the divers’ scores
on the NART-II and scores on other tests of written language, Stroop (r ¼ .61,
p ¼ .003), and SCOLP Silly Sentences (r ¼ .537, p ¼ .018).
APNEA DIVING: NEUROCOGNITIVE SEQUELAE 169
All divers were observed to complete the neurological tasks and the 4-item
memory task at a ceiling level without difficulty. Group means and standard devia-
tions for N ¼ 21 divers on each of the neuropsychological tests are reported in
Table 5. As a group, the divers all performed within one standard deviation of pub-
lished norms on each neuropsychological test with age, gender, and education
adjusted for where possible. At the individual level, no diver’s score was significantly
below his or her population normative data, again with demographic adjustments
made where available.
To examine the hypothesis that more years engaged in apnea activity would
impair performance, correlations and group differences (less than 4 years versus
4–20 years) on neuropsychological test scores were examined. No significant correla-
tions (Spearman’s rho) or group difference was found (F(1,19)¼ .66, ns). To examine
the hypothesis that the total number of negative neurological events over a lifetime
would impact on performance on neuropsychological tests, SPSS Multivariate
General Linear Model was employed to compare the 3 NNE groups. The means,
standard deviations and univariate F values are reported in Table 5. Again, no
significant correlations or group difference was found.
This study aimed to quantify any long-term neurocognitive sequelae from fre-
quent, repeated long-duration apnea activity. The hypothesis that elite divers with
more years engaged in apnea activity would score lower on neuropsychological tests
than norms was not supported. This group of 21 elite freedivers with either 1–3 or 4–
20 years engaging in apnea activity performed within the average range compared to
standardized norms on a variety of sensitive neuropsychological tests. Similarly, the
second hypothesis regarding persisting or cumulative effects, such that divers with
the greatest number of negative neurological events (NNE) would demonstrate
poorer performance on the tests than those with less NNE was also not supported.
This group of 21 elite divers with 0–2, or 3–5, or 6–23 NNE over a lifetime did not
differ on their performance on standard neuropsychological tests with known sensi-
tivity to minor interruptions to neurological functioning.
We expected that, given the serious nature of some of the NNE reported in this
group, there would be some evidence for impaired neuropsychological functioning,
especially considering findings by a Japanese neurosurgery group that MRI scans
of 3 ama divers with similar neurological histories demonstrated multiple brain
lesions (Kohshi et al., 2001), and other research demonstrating persisting cognitive
impairment from hypoxic conditions (Hornbein et al., 1989; Naegele et al., 1998;
Regard et al., 1989; Townes et al., 1984). Thus, we can conclude that even if there
were any cognitive difficulties associated with the changed neurobehavioral function-
ing (brief episodes of LOC or LMC) immediately post breath-hold, there were no
persisting deficits according to the sensitive neuropsychological tests used in this
study. As all the divers tested had not participated in apnea activity for the past
12 hours, nor had any negative neurological events in the past 7 days, we can only
suggest that any acute effects of apnea appear to resolve within those time frames.
Our findings, while surprising, provide some support for studies demonstrating
170LYNNE RIDGWAY AND KEN MCFARLAND
Table 5 Z score means, standard deviations (in parentheses), and F-values on neuropsychological tests according to the number of lifetime negative neurological
events reported for N ¼ 21 elite freedivers
Lifetime negative neurological events
Neuropsychological test variable
Group (N ¼ 21)
0–2 (n ¼ 8)
3–5 (n ¼ 7)
6–23 (n ¼ 6)
Sig. p .05
National Adult Reading Test-II
Symbol Digit Modalities Test
Speed & Comprehension of Language Process (Silly Sentences)
Controlled Oral Word Association (FAS)
Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale—III, Digit Span subtest
Modified Stroop Trial ‘‘C’’ (color incongruent words)
Note. All variables have been rescaled such that a low Z score reflects poorer performance.
no persisting effects from mountaineers who suffer repeated exposure to hypoxic
conditions (Clarke et al., 1989; Jason et al., 1989).
Explanations for the intact cognitive functioning of this group of elite divers
include the possibility of an adaptive response to low-oxygen states such as found
in mountaineers, some clinical conditions, and physiological studies of apnea divers
(Auer & Sutherland, 2002; Boero et al., 1999; Ferretti & Costa, 2003; Hochachka,
2000; LaManna et al., 1992; Lindholm, Sundblad, & Linnarsson, 1999). It was
beyond the scope of this study to determine the presence of specific adaptations;
however, it is possible that the presence of a physiological adaptive response may
An alternative account may be that the divers in this sample were a well-
educated group (average 13 years). It may be suggested that the level of education
and intellectual ability obscured the detection of cognitive impairment. However,
given that the current analysis used scaled scores to adjust for age, gender, and edu-
cation, this explanation appears unlikely. Correspondingly, the NART-II, with its
potential for experimenter bias in the scoring, may have incorrectly estimated the
group’s intellectual ability, especially when administered across groups with different
national accents. However, the examination of the multinational results revealed no
significant groups by country effect and there was no obvious experimenter bias or
administrative difficulty. As a cautious note, the lack of group statistical significance
does not rule out lasting neurocognitive deficits in some apnea divers. More power
with a larger sample size or using sensitive MRI scanning may have detected more
subtle residual deficits in this population.
The current research with a group of healthy elite apnea divers without medical
or psychological adjustment problems or sleep disturbances has provided an opport-
unity to attempt to isolate the etiology of neurocognitive sequelae from hypoxic con-
ditions. The current findings may be of interest to researchers examining the etiology
of cognitive and behavioral changes reported in disorders such as sleep apnea and
chronic obstructive airways disease (Lewin et al., 2002; Naegele et al., 1998; Redline
et al., 1997). It may be a possibility that factors other than pure hypoxemia are
responsible for the poor cognitive outcomes reported in clinical research.
This study focused on the long-term effects of repeated, long-duration apneas
with accompanying negative neurological events in healthy adults. The selected tests
did not detect any impairment in neurocognitive functioning compared with norms
matched for age, gender, and education. However, before concluding that long-
duration apneas are without consequence, further studies are required to examine
any acute effects after long-duration apneas. It would also be worthwhile to simul-
taneously examine the physiological and neuropsychological correlates following
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