Nav: Home

Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hikers provide data for Sandia study of health, performance

January 18, 2017

LIVERMORE, Calif. - It takes a special type of person to hike from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other in a single day. These motivated, resilient athletes now are helping researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico (UNM) to collect and study biometric data to determine if declines in physical or cognitive functions can predict a medical emergency.

Called R2R WATCH, for Rim-to-Rim Wearables at the Canyon for Health, the study draws on the research team's expertise in biology and cognitive science. Volunteers take surveys and cognitive tests and provide basic medical information, such as weight, blood pressure and blood samples, plus data from wearable fitness devices.

"The overall goal is to determine if a pattern of biological and, more uniquely, cognitive markers can be identified that precedes serious health events, such as hyponatremia, a decrease of sodium levels in the blood," said Glory Aviña, cognitive psychologist and Sandia principal investigator for the study.

Jon Femling, emergency room physician and an assistant professor at UNM, said, "Trauma is difficult to study because you generally can't plan for it, but if people are willing to put their bodies through a hike this extreme, we can learn a lot."

The three-year research project, funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), joined an existing study of rim-to-rim hikers conducted by UNM. The UNM investigation began in May 2015 in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) with surveys of hikers at the start and end of their hikes. In May 2016, an expanded version of the study asked hikers for volunteer blood samples and detailed information about what they ate and drank on their journeys.

An extreme challenge

The rim-to-rim hike is the equivalent of a marathon in distance, with a 1-mile change in elevation and temperatures that range from below 30 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 110 degrees. In addition, the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike is an inverse challenge; the first half is easier than the second.

"In most challenging hikes, like Mount Whitney in California, if you become exhausted, you can turn around and head downhill," said Cathy Branda, research geneticist and Sandia's project manager for the study. "In the Grand Canyon, it's very easy to underestimate just how difficult it is to hike out of the canyon."

The original UNM/NPS study came about because the NPS experienced a series of challenges with rim-to-rim hikers, including an increase in requests for assistance, which greatly taxed the rescue resources in the park. With a small staff, rangers were becoming dangerously fatigued with the number of rescues occurring on peak R2R weekends.

During the peak spring and fall seasons, as many as 1,100 people per weekend set out on a rim-to-rim hike. About 350 people are rescued from the Grand Canyon each year, 150 to 180 by helicopter.

The prevalence of hyponatremia has increased, especially in rim-to-rim hikers. Analysis of blood samples from the May 2016 UNM/NPS rim-to-rim study showed that one hiker was moderately hyponatremic at the trail end. Acute hyponatremia can cause cerebral edema, or brain swelling, which in turn can lead to coma or death within hours if left untreated.

Treatment of this type of hyponatremia, known as exercise-associated hyponatremia, requires a specialized set of skills. Insights from the R2R WATCH study will provide a deeper understanding of the illness to improve preventive education and treatment.

Tracking wearable devices

Study participants took fast-paced electronic tests involving colors, arrows and happy and sad faces -- before their hikes, at three-hour intervals and at the end.

"The tests measure their working memory, executive function and other cognitive factors that could be used as early health indicators of performance," Aviña said. "For example, we expect that as people are more physically tasked, their reaction time will slow."

Two of the study's goals are to determine which commercial off-the-shelf devices work best in extreme environments and to identify the physiological and cognitive markers that provide the earliest, yet reliable, indication of health decline.

"The project enables us to use real-time data collection and quantitatively show how markers relate to a non-laboratory, mission-relatable performance task," Aviña said. "Findings on individual markers will also inform which wearable devices are most useful both in the attributes they measure and the logistics of use."

She also is using Sandia's expertise in device development and cybersecurity to identify how data can best be collected and protected, especially since network connectivity in the Grand Canyon is inconsistent and unreliable.

Data analysis underway

The team is evaluating the devices, extracting the data from each wearable device and analyzing the results. It is looking for relationships between physiological and cognitive markers, as well as performance and health outcomes. They will determine which devices were the most effective in terms of battery life, functionality and the ability to accurately capture physiological markers.

These results will feed into the next round of data collection for the R2R WATCH study, scheduled for May 2017.

"This initial study of both physiological and cognitive markers was a great success. We collected wearable device data from 50 people, and over 100 people participated in the overall study in one weekend," Branda said. "But this is just the beginning. This unique setting and our partnership with UNM and the NPS create the opportunity to learn a great deal about predicting medical events. We expect to have more participants and to be more targeted in the data we collect at the next study in May 2017."
-end-
Sandia National Laboratories is a multimission laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Michael Padilla, mjpadil@sandia.gov, (925) 294-2447

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories

Related Working Memory Articles:

Taking photos of experiences boosts visual memory, impairs auditory memory
A quick glance at any social media platform will tell you that people love taking photos of their experiences -- whether they're lying on the beach, touring a museum, or just waiting in line at the grocery store.
Rosemary aroma can aid children's working memory
Exposure to the aroma of rosemary essential oil can significantly enhance working memory in children.
Buzzing the brain with electricity can boost working memory
Scientists have uncovered a method for improving short-term working memory, by stimulating the brain with electricity to synchronize brain waves.
Adolescents with weak working memory and progressive drug use at risk for later addictions
Drug use in adolescence is often linked to later substance-abuse problems, but a new study suggests that a key risk factor is a combination of weak working memory and difficulties with impulse control.
Researchers' discovery of new verbal working memory architecture has implications for AI
The neural structure we use to store and process information in verbal working memory is more complex than previously understood, finds a new study by researchers at New York University.
More GABA in one brain region linked to better working memory, Stanford scientist says
The amount of a particular chemical in a particular part of your brain predicts your ability to simultaneously hang onto several bits of information in your working memory, a Stanford University School of Medicine scientist and his University of California-Davis collaborators have learned.
Working full time not enough to lift thousands of Florida's working parents out of poverty
Even after working 40 or more hours a week, thousands of Florida parents would need to earn nearly double the state's current hourly minimum wage in order to break even.
Higher-income students have an edge when it comes to working memory
University of Toronto and MIT researchers have discovered important differences between lower and higher-income children in their ability to use working memory, a key brain function responsible for everything from remembering a phone number to doing math in your head.
Study reveals how interaction between neural networks changes during working memory
Investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital have found that dopamine signaling within the cerebral cortex can predict changes in the extent of communication between key brain networks during working memory.
Survival of the hardest working
An engineering team at Washington University in St. Louis developed a cellular kill switch, a sensor that rewards hard working cells and eliminates their lazy counterparts.

Related Working Memory Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Crisis
There's no greater threat to humanity than climate change. What can we do to stop the worst consequences? This hour, TED speakers explore how we can save our planet and whether we can do it in time. Guests include climate activist Greta Thunberg, chemical engineer Jennifer Wilcox, research scientist Sean Davis, food innovator Bruce Friedrich, and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#527 Honey I CRISPR'd the Kids
This week we're coming to you from Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. There, host Bethany Brookshire led a panel of three amazing guests to talk about the promise and perils of CRISPR, and what happens now that CRISPR babies have (maybe?) been born. Featuring science writer Tina Saey, molecular biologist Anne Simon, and bioethicist Alan Regenberg. A Nobel Prize winner argues banning CRISPR babies won’t work Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA News of the first gene-edited babies ignited a firestorm The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends...