For their experiment, researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan flew all the way to the Split Clinical Hospital Centre for Pulmonary Diseases in Split, Croatia. They administered oxygen therapy to patients with COPD who were recuperating at the hospital.
UBC researcher Ryan Hoiland served as the first author of the study. He said that the inefficient exchange of oxygen gas in patients with moderate to severe COPD could lead to the onset of chronic hypoxemia, where the blood contains reduced levels of oxygen. His co-author and team leader, Phil Ainslie, reported that their experiment showed how oxygen therapy boosted the amount of beneficial gas that reaches the brain of COPD patients. Increasing the oxygen levels in the brain could protect the patient from neurogenerative diseases.
Ainslie added that oxygen treatment could also reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease. So in addition to stopping dementia and mild cognitive impairment, the treatment could also prevent diseases such as stroke. (Related: Fight Parkinson’s with these 6 alternative treatments.)
Studies dating back to the 1980s showed that oxygen therapy can decrease the risk of mortality for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. However, no one had thoroughly examined the ability of oxygen to protect a participant from other diseases.
"People with COPD may experience lower than normal blood oxygen levels on a consistent basis due to reduced lung function," Hoiland explained. "While COPD is a respiratory disease, the low oxygen levels cause problems throughout the body, including impacting the health of the heart and brain."
Furthermore, earlier literature indicated that oxygen therapy could decrease the chances of cognitive impairment and perhaps dementia as well. And it seemed to achieve this by improving the activity of blood vessels in the brain.
For example, the airways of COPD patients can get obstructed. The blockage can cause a drop in blood oxygen levels; conversely, it can also cause the concentration of carbon dioxide to climb. If the brain received this low-oxygen, high-CO2 blood for long periods of time, it could become more vulnerable to dementia.
The UBC Okanagan researchers started the experiment by evaluating the blood flow to the brain of the COPD patients. After the initial readings, the participants rested for 30 minutes while undergoing oxygen treatment.
Subsequently, the treated participants read standardized materials for 30 seconds in order to induce activity in their brain. They then spent the next 30 seconds with their eyes closed.
The pre-treatment and post-treatment measurements were taken using an ultrasound device. Analysis of the data showed that oxygen therapy increased the oxygen level in the blood that reached the brain of participants.
Furthermore, the treatment bolstered the ability of blood vessels in the brain to coordinate with the other cells in the organ. This "neurovascular function" made sure that the brain is getting enough amounts of oxygen during periods of increased activity that need the energy boost.
"This particular aspect of brain and neurovascular function is extremely important, with impaired neurovascular function implicated in the development and progression of diseases such as dementia," said Hoiland. "This improvement in cerebral oxygen delivery and neurovascular function might provide a physiological link between oxygen therapy and a reduced risk of certain brain diseases for people with COPD."