by B. Davies
On the surface, this seems a totally impossible idea! But on the basis of promising evidence in animals a group of researchers from the United States has conducted the first ever trial in humans.
What was the experiment about?
Experiments  on spinal cord injury animal models has shown that if animals experience bouts of breathing low levels of oxygen, combined with rehabilitation, then they recover greater physical function. So, the group from America decided to put this into practice in patients with chronic spinal cord injury. In patients with chronic (i.e. a long time after their injury) spinal cord injury, the capacity for improvement is thought to have plateaued.
The group took 6 patients and randomly assigned 3 to perform hand exercises for 1.5minutes whilst breathing low level oxygen and the other 3 to perform hand exercises at normal oxygen levels.
Patients breathing low levels of oxygen had significantly greater hand function after treatment for 5 consecutive days, than those who did not. The group hypothesize that the low levels of oxygen stimulates the release of growth factors, that, when coupled with rehabilitation, drive spinal cord repair.
What do these results tell us?
These results are very exciting. However, there are a number of limitations with this study and further evaluation is still needed, especially since this is an idea in its early stages - so we are by no means advocating you stop breathing anytime soon!
 Trumbower, R., Hayes, H., Mitchell, G., Wolf, S., & Stahl, V. (2017, September 29). Effects of acute intermittent hypoxia on hand use after spinal cord trauma; a preliminary study. Neurology, 89(18), 1904-1907. Retrieved from pubmed.gov: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28972191
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