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Interview with study lead Dr. Alexander Stahn of Charité’s Institute of Physiology
Members of a polar research expedition have provided researchers from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development with an opportunity to study the effects of social isolation and extreme environmental conditions on the human brain. The researchers found changes to the dentate gyrus, an area of the hippocampus responsible for spatial thinking and memory. Results from their study have been published in The New England Journal of Medicine*.
Setting off on an Antarctic expedition to Neumayer-Station III, a German Antarctic research station run by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), means having to face temperatures as low as -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit) and almost complete darkness during the winter months. Life at the research station offers little in the way of privacy or personal space. Contact with the outside world is minimal, and cutting one’s stay short is not an option – at least not during the long winter months. Emergency evacuation and deliveries of food and equipment are only possible during the relatively short summer. “This scenario offers us the opportunity to study the ways in which exposure to extreme conditions affect the human brain,” says study lead Dr. Alexander Stahn of Charité’s Institute of Physiology and Assistant Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Working alongside Prof. Dr. Simone Kühn (Group Leader of the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development), and supported by the AWI, Dr. Stahn set out to determine whether or not an Antarctic expedition produces changes to the structure and function of the human brain.