Oxygen: The Rate-Limiting Factor for Episodic Memory Performance, Even in Healthy Young Individuals

Biomolecules. 2020 Sep 17;10(9):1328. doi: 10.3390/biom10091328.


Cognition is a crucial element of human functionality. Like any other physical capability, cognition is both enabled and limited by tissue biology. The aim of this study was to investigate whether oxygen is a rate-limiting factor for any of the main cognitive domains in healthy young individuals. Fifty-six subjects were randomly assigned to either increased oxygen supply using hyperbaric oxygen (two atmospheres of 100% oxygen) or to a "sham" treatment (a simulation of increased pressure in a chamber with normal air). While in the chamber, participants went through a battery of tests evaluating the major cognitive domains including information processing speed, episodic memory, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attention. The results demonstrated that from all evaluated cognitive domains, a statistically significant improvement was found in the episodic memory of the hyper-oxygenized group. The hyper-oxygenized group demonstrated a better learning curve and a higher resilience to interference. To conclude, oxygen delivery is a rate-limiting factor for memory function even in healthy young individuals under normal conditions. Understanding the biological limitations of our cognitive functions is important for future development of interventional tools that can be used in daily clinical practice.

Keywords: cognitive enhancement; episodic memory; hyperbaric oxygen; hyperoxia.