High altitude may negatively affect brain chemistry

Living at a higher altitude could negatively affect brain chemistry, found a study by VA Salt Lake City researchers and colleagues.

Epidemiological studies have suggested that living at high altitude may be a risk factor for mood disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.

The researchers used brain imaging to compare metabolite levels in the brains of patients living in Utah, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.

Metabolites are molecules that the brain needs to function properly. Patients in Utah, which is at a higher elevation, had lower levels of several brain metabolites, compared with patients in the two other locations closer to sea level.

The researchers also suggest that low atmospheric pressure at high altitudes may lower blood oxygen levels. This may affect mood and make people living at these altitudes more susceptible to suicidal thoughts, they explain.

Individuals are much more likely to think about, attempt, or complete suicide if they have major depressive disorder, and around 16 percent of people experience this mental health condition at some point in their lives.

Major depressive disorder occurs when someone has at least 2 weeks of low mood, self-esteem, and energy across most situations.

Rates of major depressive disorder vary substantially from region to region, which could suggest that environmental factors play a role in some cases of major depressive disorder and suicide.

In the U.S., around 123 people take their own lives every day, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death nationwide.

Larger studies are needed to examine how altitude affects brain chemistry and mental health conditions, according to the researchers.

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