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UCLA Imaging Study Reveals How Pure Oxygen Harms the Brain

That's when something surprising happened on the MRI scan.

Three brain structures suddenly lit up: the hippocampus, which helps control blood pressure; the cingulate cortex, which regulates pain perception and blood pressure; and the insula, which monitors physical and emotional stress.

All this activity awakened the hypothalamus, which regulates heart rate and hormonal outflow. Activation of the hypothalamus triggered a cascade of harmful reactions and released chemicals that can injure the brain and heart.

"Several brain areas responded to 100 percent oxygen by kicking the hypothalamus into overdrive," explained Harper. "The hypothalamus overreacted by dumping a massive flood of hormones and neurotransmitters into the bloodstream. These chemicals interfere with the heart's ability to pump blood and deliver oxygen the opposite effect you want when you're trying to resuscitate someone."

When the children inhaled the carbon dioxide-oxygen mix, the hypothalamus' hyperactivity vanished from the MRI scan.

"Adding carbon dioxide to the oxygen relaxed the blood vessels, allowed oxygen to reach the heart and brain, calmed the hypothalamus and slowed the release of dangerous chemicals," said Macey.

"Pure oxygen kindles the match that fuels a forest fire of harm to the body," said Harper. "But a little whiff of carbon dioxide makes it all go away."

Based on their findings, the researchers strongly encourage healthcare providers to add carbon dioxide to oxygen dispensation, especially when resuscitating infants or administering oxygen for more than a few minutes. The new direction could hold particular implications for patients of stroke, heart attack, carbon monoxide poisoning and any long-term oxygen therapy.

"When in doubt about a case, the current medical approach is to increase oxygen levels and wait to see if the patient improves," explained Harper.
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