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How much can human bodies take?

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Inside a 12-foot-square room at the University of Oregon, it can be summer all year long.

But it also can be the equivalent of a winter day in International Falls, Minn., or a steamy day in a tropical jungle, or any day at the top of a mountain.

The $300,000 environmental chamber is the latest addition to a research program that's helping scientists better understand the body's reaction to all sorts of conditions and find better treatments for everything from sleep apnea to high blood pressure to acute altitude sickness.

"The human body is always being challenged by the environment it's exposed to," said John Halliwill, a professor of human physiology at the UO. "Using this chamber, we're going to be able to really explore the human condition."

The chamber is just the most recent evidence that the UO's department of human physiology, all but given up for dead as little as 10 years ago, not only has a heartbeat but is thriving. It has attracted a cadre of award-winning young researchers, has almost $4 million in research grants and has seen its enrollment leap from about 50 to more than 400.

Today, its researchers are exploring how musicians learn the precise finger movements needed to play a string instrument, looking for new ways to help stroke victims regain mobility, measuring the effects of concussion and how soon an injured person should return to sports or other activities, researching the potential of exercise to treat high blood pressure and more.

"The rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated," said professor Gary Klug, the department head.

The new environmental chamber opens up even more opportunities for advanced research. Funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense and a private gift, the chamber allows researchers to simulate altitudes up to 18,000 feet and precisely control temperature and humidity in a wide range.

That allows scientists to, for example, study the neurotransmitters involved in blood flow to the skin during heat stress and perhaps come up with ways to help the body better tolerate exercise and other activity in hot, moist climates. It also can let researchers look at whether athletes get any advantage from sleeping in a low-oxygen environment equivalent to being at high altitude.

Those things are difficult to study when you have to depend on weather and geography to provide the laboratory environment.

"It's hard to get weather on demand," Halliwill said during a recent demonstration of the chamber. "Instead of taking the lab to the mountain, we have brought the mountain to the lab."

UO researchers are still tweaking the chamber but expect to begin studies and collect data soon. They currently have a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study sleep apnea, a disorder in which a sleeping person stops breathing for brief periods repeatedly during the night.

The room is large enough to house a treadmill or other exercise equipment to study the effect of exercise and oxygen levels on hypertension and how lack of oxygen affects mountain climbers. It could handle several bunks to gauge the effects of sleeping at simulated altitude on physical performance.

"We're building a really big machine for studying the human condition," Halliwill said. "This is a huge benefit to our research in the department of human physiology."

It's also brought the department full circle. The department started out in 1920 as the country's first school of physical education, riding on a national surge of interest in exercise. At the time, its focus was training PE teachers, but it later morphed into the department of physical exercise and human movement and then exercise and movement science as the program became more research-oriented.

Then came 1990 and Measure 5, the property tax law that made funding for much of K-12 education a state responsibility. That prompted deep cuts in other state areas, especially higher education.

"Our department was essentially wiped out," Klug said. "We used to joke about putting our keys in the door and if it unlocked that meant we were here for another day."

That's when Klug and his fellow researchers began to focus more on human physiology and what Klug calls "dynamic physiology," the study of the body's structure and how it reacts to movement across a spectrum of conditions. It didn't hurt that the nation was waking up to a growing obesity problem and a new appreciation of the value of exercise, just as it had in 1920. That led to new research and grants and earned the department funding for new positions. It began to recruit promising young researchers, such as Halliwill, Chris Minson, Paul van Donkelaar, Li-Shan Chou and Andy Karduna, to work alongside its remaining veterans.

The department also gets valuable help from about 40 area physicians, who teach specialized topics and sometimes entire courses, almost always for free. Students planning careers as doctors, nurses, physical therapists and other health care professionals are swarming to the program, which also is involved with an effort to bring students from Oregon Health & Science University to Eugene for part of their studies.

That success has come in spite of more steep cuts to higher education in recent years. The UO and Eugene can still sometimes attract quality people despite academic salaries well below average; the challenge, Klug and others say, is keeping them once they've established themselves and other universities make better offers.

CAPTION(S):

Gregg McCord tests the University of Oregon's new environmental chamber, a $300,000 facility that allows researchers from the thriving department of physiology to replicate a variety of environmental conditions, including altitude and temperature, to test how the human body responds. and this is light text and this is more light text "Instead of taking the lab to the mountain, we have brought the mountain to the lab." - JOHN HALLIWILL, UO PROFESSOR (AT LEFT)
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; Physiologists explore our physical reactions inside a UO environmental chamber
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 5, 2005
Words:982
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