In hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), a person enters a special chamber to breathe in pure oxygen in air pressure levels one-and-a-half to three times higher than average

The first documented use of came before the discovery of oxygen, when, in 1662, British clergyman named Henshaw used a system of organ bellows to change the atmospheric pressure in a sealed chamber called a domicilium. Even though he had no scientific basis for his theories, Henshaw believed that acute conditions would benefit from increased air pressure, while chronic conditions would respond better to decreased air pressure. Since it was first used about a century ago in the US as medical treatment to fill the blood with enough oxygen to repair tissues and restore normal body function

HBOT has been recognized as having the potential to speed the healing of carbon monoxide and cyanide poisoning victims, including miners and firefighters; perform decompression on divers who returned to the surface of the water too fast or too late; and to treat gangrene, stubborn wounds and infections in which tissues are starved for oxygen and “flesh-eating disease” (necrotizing soft tissue infection) and diabetic wounds that do not heal properly. 

There is a growing body of evidence on the regenerative effects of HBOT by improving tissue oxygenation while targeting both oxygen and pressure sensitive genes, resulting in restored and enhanced tissue metabolism. In addition, these targeted genes induce stem cell proliferation, reduce inflammation and stimulate the generation of new blood vessels and tissue repair mechanisms. 

Wound injuries damage the body’s blood vessels, which release fluid that leaks into the tissues and causes swelling, depriving the damaged cells of oxygen and killing the tissue. HBOT brings oxygen-rich plasma to tissue starved for oxygen, minimizing the swelling while flooding the tissues with oxygen. The chamber’s elevated pressure raises the amount of oxygen in the blood. 

Now, Israelis have discovered a potentially preventive use of HBOT – to significantly enhance the cognitive performance of healthy older adults. Research just published in the journal Aging by scientists at the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Researchers at Shamir (Assaf Harofeh) Medical Center in Tzrifin (near Rishon Lezion), together with Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine and its Sagol School of Neuroscience are the first to show this HBOT benefit. 

More than half of adults over age 60 who live in their communities worry about eventually suffering from declining cognitive abilities. The current study’s aim was to evaluate hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) effect on cognitive functions in healthy aging adults. Besides common pathological declines such as in Alzheimer’s dementia and mild cognitive impairments, cognitive aging is part of the normal aging process, the researchers wrote. Processing speed, conceptual reasoning, memory and problem-solving activities are the main domains that dwindle gradually over time

The peer-reviewed article was entitled “Cognitive enhancement of healthy older adults using hyperbaric oxygen: a randomized controlled trial.”

They announced that, for the first time in humans, HBOT can significantly enhance the cognitive performance of healthy older adults – improving their attention, information processing speed, executive function and global cognitive function, all of which typically decline with age. In addition, they found a significant correlation between the cognitive changes and improved cerebral blood flow in specific brain locations. 

Prof Shai Efrati, who heads the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research and directs research and development at Shamir Medical Center as well as teaching at Sackler and Dr. Amir Hadanny of the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research designed the study based on a unique HBOT protocol developed over the past decade. 

The randomized controlled clinical trial included 63 healthy adults who underwent either HBOT or a control period for three months. The study aimed at producing improvement in general cognitive function measured by a standardized comprehensive battery of computerized cognitive assessments before and after the intervention or control. Cerebral blood flow was evaluated by a novel magnetic resonance imaging technique for brain perfusion.

“Age-related cognitive and functional decline has become a significant concern in the Western world,” said Efrati. “Major research efforts around the world are focused on improving the cognitive performance of the so-called ‘normal’ aging population. In our study, for the first time in humans, we have found an effective and safe medical intervention that can address this unwanted consequence of our age-related deterioration.”

“Over years of research, we have developed an advanced understanding of HBOT’s ability to restore brain function,” added Hadanny. “In the past, we have demonstrated HBOT’s potential to improve/treat brain injuries such as stroke, traumatic brain injury and anoxic brain injury (due to sustained lack of oxygen supply) by increasing brain blood flow and metabolism. This landmark research could have a far-reaching impact on the way we view the aging process and the ability to treat its symptoms.”

“The occlusion [blockage] of small blood vessels similar to the occlusions that may develop in the pipes of an ‘aging’ home is a dominant element in the human aging process. This led us to speculate that HBOT may affect brain performance of the aging population,” Efrati explained. “We found that HBOT induced a significant increase in brain blood flow, which correlated with cognitive improvement, confirming our theory. One can conjecture that similar beneficial effect of HBOT can be induced in other organs of the aging body. These will be investigated in our upcoming research.”