Bringing Research to New Heights

Doctoral student climbing mountain in attempt to understand what it takes to conduct research at 20,000 feet

By Roger AndersonDecember 18, 2017

“Sleeping in the clouds can be draining,” says Kevin Schmidt. He’s a cognitive neuroscience doctoral student at Northwestern and an applied neuroscience researcher at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). “There’s far less oxygen at high altitude, and the tent I’ve been sleeping in at night reproduces that environment.”

Sitting at a coffee shop the week before Thanksgiving, Schmidt, a graduate student in Paul Reber’s lab at Northwestern, opens his laptop to reveal a plot of squares and circles. Each is color-coded to represent the quality of a night’s sleep for him throughout the past three months.

The data show a potential trend: the first evening at a new “altitude” typically results in poor sleep, but after a few nights, Schmidt’s body and brain seem to adjust to the conditions.

The tent creates a hypoxic, normobaric environment — altering the oxygen levels but not the barometric pressure exerted on Schmidt’s body, and simulating his ascent of Argentina’s Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America. On December 18, Schmidt was camped near Aconcagua’s 22,837-foot peak waiting for weather to clear before any summit attempt could be made. Next week he will try to determine if the acclimatization regimen helped his body better respond to the thinner air.

“There have been numerous explorations of acclimating to low-oxygen environments while at or near sea level (Evanston’s elevation is 610 feet), but the longest study was less than two weeks,” says Schmidt, who theorizes that it may take far longer for the body to see benefits from the overnight exposure. “We are eventually interested in determining if there are different ways to train the brain and body to react better to low-oxygen environments.”

The low-oxygen environment work was one of two scientific efforts Schmidt was engaged in while climbing. The other was designed to explore aspects of the brain’s ability to function in low-oxygen environments. Climbing a mountain puts stress on the brain, which sometimes leads to catastrophic mishaps.

“In the lab we can try to study stress under very controlled conditions, yet the level of stress you get on a mountain is something we cannot recreate,” says Schmidt. “Using mountains as a laboratory could eventually help us transition discoveries to application.” This project won’t reach the level of precision of systematic data collection within the lab, but provides a way to obtain some subjective data and bring the scientific ideas out into the field.

“The brain has different cognitive skills that are differentially affected by physiological constraints and stressors,” says Schmidt, a first-year doctoral student who graduated from Wright State in 2011. “By investigating several different cognitive tests, this climb gives us the opportunity to get some rare preliminary data about the ways human cognition may break down in low-oxygen environments — data that we couldn’t get in the lab. We believe that attention and vigilance are probably quite impacted by low oxygen, while some forms of memory may be pretty resistant to impairment.”

Graduate Studies

Schmidt’s graduate research in the Reber lab will eventually focus on the study of implicit memory — which differs from typical explicit, or thought-based recollection — and shows up in behavior as a hunch or intuition. In their prior research, students working with Reber, psychology, have helped to developed laboratory tasks to isolate the non-conscious skill learning system in the brain and encode information into it, outside of awareness. An application of this work was recently demonstrated by Reber in a National Science Foundation project that delivered a proof-of-concept authentication system resistant to coercion by storing password information implicitly in the brain and outside the user’s awareness. 

Reber has studied the human brain, particularly the cognitive neuroscience of implicit memory and skill learning, for more than two decades. “In life, we regularly use these memory systems in parallel in complex cognitive tasks,” says Reber. “Much of our early work was aimed at dissociating these forms of memory, but more recently we have focused on interactions between them. For example, knowing when to trust intuitions or how to balance practice-based implicit knowledge with memorized information in skilled performance.”

Schmidt is building towards using Reber’s implicit learning technology to test the limits of the non-conscious memory system in extreme environments, like those on a mountain. The hypothesized effect is that using implicit, non-conscious knowledge will be relatively unimpaired by stresses related to low-oxygen environments or mountain climbing exertion.

Schmidt joined Reber’s lab in September to pursue a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience through a Department of Defense Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship. Schmidt is also a member of the United States federal civil service and he previously used a SMART scholarship to complete his master’s degree in psychology: cognitive and behavioral neuroscience at George Mason University.

“The collaborative, rather than competitive, environment among faculty at Northwestern is what attracted me to the University,” says Schmidt. “Being a part of the Reber lab has been amazing and I’m looking forward to the years of research and discovery ahead.”

The Climb

Schmidt and climbing partners Jake Quartuccio of JQ Scientific and Simone Erchov of Research Solutions Consulting flew to Santiago on December 8 — the mountain borders Chile and Argentina — obtained official climbing permits, and then hiked for two days to reach basecamp, some 14,000 feet above sea level.

Once there, Schmidt took a specially designed exam on a tablet to test his brain’s baseline cognitive performance. He then tested at higher camps on his way to the summit to try to understand cognitive dynamics in these increasingly extreme conditions.

“The goal is to gather enough data to apply for funding and launch a formal study testing the different memory systems of the brain in low–oxygen environments,” says Schmidt. “Though this was not systematic data collection, some of what I will learn is what is required to conduct an experiment on a mountain where temperatures could be -30 degrees Celsius.”

Schmidt became an avid rock climber while an undergraduate at Wright State in Dayton, Ohio, and began his foray into high-altitude mountaineering with an ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet, a year and a half ago. Schmidt and his fellow climbers will discuss their Aconcagua experience at the US Embassy in Santiago next week. When Schmidt returns to the United States, he will spend the first week of the new year in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, where he will embed with a climbing unit and conduct more research tests while becoming skilled in glacier ascents.

The Air Force Research Laboratory, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, maintains an annual operating budget of $5 billion. A part of the United States Air Force, the AFRL is dedicated to the discovery, development, and integration of affordable aerospace technologies, and planning and executing the Air Force science and technology program.

In 2015, Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology was awarded a U.S. Air Force Center of Excellence grant to design advanced bioprogrammable nanomaterials for solutions to challenging problems in the areas of energy, the environment, security and defense, as well as for developing ways to monitor and mitigate human stress. The five-year, $9.8 million grant established the Center of Excellence for Advanced Bioprogrammable Nanomaterials, the only one of its kind in the country.