Safe diving poses no risk of brain injury

December 11, 2000

ST. PAUL, MN - Scuba diving has no long-term effects on the brain, according to a study in the December 12 issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study compared 24 professional German Navy divers and 24 German Navy employees who do not dive. A battery of exams testing their brain functions showed no difference between the two groups.

"Previous studies have shown that recreational divers have a higher incidence of brain injury than the general population, but most of these studies were performed on divers with a history of decompression illness," said neurologist Guenther Deuschl, MD, study author from Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany.

Researchers studied divers with no history of decompression illness, which is caused by the release of gas bubbles into tissues when decompression occurs too fast. The overall risk of decompression illness is minimal but can be reduced further by following safety precautions when diving and limiting the number of dives in one day.

"The good news is that our study looked at divers with an average 17 years diving experience and we found no evidence of brain injury. These people are high-risk divers, who had performed an average of 1,652 dives," said Deuschl. "Our research shows that long-term diving is safe as long as people adhere to the conditions of safe diving."

Divers and non-divers were tested for differences in memory, basic intelligence, alertness, verbal capabilities, mood changes and motor skills. Researchers also looked at magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of divers and non-divers and found no difference.

Deuschl maintains divers need to adhere to safety standards and take into consideration other possible risk factors. According to another study in the December 12 issue of Neurology, a patent foramen ovale, or an opening between two chambers in the heart, increases the risk of brain injury for divers. The opening allows gas bubbles that form during the divers' ascent and decompression to enter arteries in the brain and block the blood flow. The opening is present in almost one-third of the general population.

Divers who frequently perform high-risk dives should be screened for this heart condition, according to study author Tibo Gerriets, MD, of Justus-Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. A neurologist is a medical doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system.

The American Academy of Neurology, an association of more than 17,000 neurologists and neuroscience professionals, is dedicated to improving patient care through education and research.

For more information about the American Academy of Neurology, visit its Web site at For online neurological health and wellness information, visit NeuroVista at

American Academy of Neurology

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