APEX 6: Altitude Physiology Expedition
A group of 34 University of Edinburgh student volunteers traveled to Bolivia to further our understanding of human physiology at high altitude.
The impact of low oxygen levels (hypoxia) presents a significant challenge to the human body and it can have devastating effects. Since 2001, the University of Edinburgh’s medical students have committed to furthering our understanding of human physiology at high altitudes with Altitude Physiology Expeditions (APEX).
Years in the planning
Complex research expeditions like this take years to plan for. A total of 177 students applied to volunteer on APEX 6 with 34 students, two doctors, and four student organisers chosen for the trip, due to commence in 2020 but due to the significant impact of Covid-19, the expedition experienced delays and eventually took place in summer 2022, when the group travelled to Huayna Potosί, Bolivia.
Students initially travelled to La Paz, Bolivia. They spent five days acclimatising to the 3,640m altitude, exploring Bolivian culture, trying local food, and building lasting relationships with fellow volunteers.
The final seven days were research-intensive and took place at a remote refuge at 4,775m above sea level. Usually serving solely as accommodation for climbers on their way to Huayna Potosí’s summit, the abundant space meant it was ideal to function as both accommodation and an adapted research laboratory.
It gave me an insight into medical research and also introduced me to an amazing group of people who I hope to keep in touch with as I go through university and beyond.
Disconnected from the world
The expedition volunteers could disconnect from the world, explore the dramatic landscape, and take the time to relax and recharge in the company of like-minded individuals. When involved in research, students could experience first-hand how primary research translates into clinical practice all while learning new skills and perspectives.
Being a participant of APEX 6 has exposed me to a side of medicine seen rarely within the traditional medical curriculum.
As well as building upon findings from previous expeditions, APEX 6 studied a new method of measuring lung oxygenation. They used arterial blood gases, dark adaptation of the eye at altitude, electroretinography and a portable field dark adaptometer. In addition, actigraphy devices—a non-invasive method of monitoring human rest/activity cycles—helped assess body clocks at altitude.
The findings of APEX 6 will be used in the continued investigation and management of patients with critical illnesses, while simultaneously inspiring students to continue engaging in medical research and travel during their studies and future careers.
Student Experience Grants Support
APEX 6 was awarded £5,000 to help towards the costs of medical provision needed for running the research expedition.