Sensitivity of cognitive function tests to acute hypoxia in healthy subjects: a systematic literature review.

Post TE, Heijn LG, Jordan J, van Gerven JMA

Acute exposure to hypoxia can lead to cognitive impairment. Therefore, hypoxia may become a safety concern for occupational or recreational settings at altitude. Cognitive tests are used as a tool to assess the degree to which hypoxia affects cognitive performance. However, so many different cognitive tests are used that comparing studies is challenging. This structured literature evaluation provides an overview of the different cognitive tests used to assess the effects of acute hypoxia on cognitive performance in healthy volunteers. Less frequently used similar cognitive tests were clustered and classified into domains. Subsequently, the different cognitive test clusters were compared for sensitivity to different levels of oxygen saturation. A total of 38 articles complied with the selection criteria, covering 86 different cognitive tests. The tests and clusters showed that the most consistent effects of acute hypoxia were found with the Stroop test (where 42% of studies demonstrated significant abnormalities). The most sensitive clusters were auditory/verbal memory: delayed recognition (83%); evoked potentials (60%); visual/spatial delayed recognition (50%); and sustained attention (47%). Attention tasks were not particularly sensitive to acute hypoxia (impairments in 0%-47% of studies). A significant hypoxia level-response relationship was found for the Stroop test ( = 0.001), as well as three clusters in the executive domain: inhibition ( = 0.034), reasoning/association ( = 0.019), and working memory ( = 0.024). This relationship shows a higher test sensitivity at more severe levels of hypoxia, predominantly below 80% saturation. No significant influence of barometric pressure could be identified in the limited number of studies where this was varied. This review suggests that complex and executive functions are particularly sensitive to hypoxia. Moreover, this literature evaluation provides the first step towards standardization of cognitive testing, which is crucial for a better understanding of the effects of acute hypoxia on cognition.