Update: Extreme Physiology

New year, new start, NEW TERM!


I say this with a genuine excitement normally only seen by children before Christmas, or children in a toyshop, or children who have eaten too much sugar. This is an excitement rarely felt by adults. Hence, I now describe that which follows as a childish display of gleeful anticipation.


There is one course offered by King’s that has been described by countless peers as ‘the best module ——— has ever taken at uni’. It is capped at 40 students, a small proportion of which are Physiology students (they study this thing full time, they had better get onto it). The rest of the places are split between a large heap of biomedical science students and intercalating medics. Entry is based on academic merit. The module is called Extreme Physiology and there are many reasons why it is reviewed so well… I am dying to get my excitement off my chest and I hope you will see why!


The two organisers of the module, Dr Mike Shattock and Dr James Clark, both work in the KCL Physiology department. It was clear that they created this module not to find a new way of examining students, but because they believe that it offers the best opportunity to catch the interest of prospective physiologists.  We were invited to embrace the opportunities of interest and stimulated discussion, a prospect that glows in comparison to the colourless didactic learning I have experienced in other modules. They aim to promote independent reading, develop proliferate conversation, and to provide speakers and lectures that ignite interest.


Surely, this is how university should be!?


The course places its lectures into themes:


Space – This will teach how one becomes an astronaut.Maximum benefit will be gained if one re-indulges themselves in childhood fantasies of weekend trips to Mars. It quickly accelerates the topic to surviving in space, while coaching one to deal with chronic exposure to the space environment and how to prevent its deleterious effects. I imagine this focuses on altered gravitational forces, although I hope it explores circadian rhythm disruption!


Altitude – What medic wouldn’t want to escape the rat-race with quick excursions to snow tipped mountains, or juxtapose career highs with Everest summits? Dr Dan Martin was one of the UCL team that scaled Everest to draw blood at extreme altitude. He has the record for the lowest PaO2 measured in a living human. Furthermore, this series features Dr Jim Milledge, a man highly regarded by every physiologist I have come across. Extreme-Everest interviewed Dr Milledge, and he even has a paper dedicated to his life in science! I’ll definitely be sitting at the front for this one.


Aviation Medicine – Our speakers are sourced directly from the Royal Air Force for this series of lectures. We’ll cover G-forces, maintaining physiology at altitude and the physiology of acceleration!


Exercise – I keenly await this series! Other than cardiovascular and respiratory physiology, the material covers the chronic adaptations to exercise and genetics of performance. I really hope that we get into the arguments of the spectrum of pathology and adaptation – when regarding the subject of an athlete’s heart, exercise adaptation may promote a heart failure-like picture while maintaining function, while endurance athletes show higher rates of atrial fibrillation.


Diving and Immersion – Prof Mike Tipton from the University of Portsmouth is a leader in the field of cold water immersion. I have seen his presentations twice at KCL, and the case-studies and physiology he unravels is truly great. Using these lecture opportunities, I hope to explore the balance of autonomic nervous system regulation in controlling heart rate – I have heard much about free-diving, and the effect of sympathetic nervous system activation on immunity. Furthermore, we explore hyperbaric oxygen and diving; hyperbaric oxygen therapy is also used for persistently non-healing wounds and as a fringe treatment for certain cancers. I look forward to exploring the crossovers between diving and other aspects of medicine.


Trauma – It was only on the weekend that I saw a mountain biker slip on some roots to collide with a tree – serving to show that practical trauma skills are forever useful. Understanding the physiology of extreme trauma will help me make the best decisions when I need to, balancing a patient’s current physiological status with an appreciation of its deterioration to to provide well timed intervention. I imagine this is why Dr Kevin Fong, another star-speaker, chose to specialise in anaesthesia.


Thermoregulation – The final series focuses on the adaptions our bodies make when confronted with extreme hot and extreme cold. Whether it’s an accident on the side of a mountain while skiing, or dealing with overheating triathletes who are unprepared for summer races. I want to explore the metabolic roles of brown fat and mitochondrial uncoupling to promote heat and improve glucose disposal, and to appreciate how athletes can incorporate heat exposure to improve performance in hot environments.  Whatever this module offers, it is bound to provide useful and fascinating learning points!



So there we are – an outline of the lectures I will have across the next months. I am waiting with extreme excitement for these lectures to start!
OH AND THE FIELD TRIP! It is like I am back at school! We go to Farnborough next week to an ageing simulator that whirls you around, exposing oneself to high gravitational forces, resulting in soft tissue sagging and interesting cardiovascular physiology.
Imagine that, a course of lectures, practicals and examinations that provokes no dragging of feet or dissatisfied gruntles.
Am I dreaming? Pinch me. Nope.

Want to know how cool the course organisers are? Dr Clark won a ‘Lab Grammy’ for his awesome ‘Biochemian Rhapsody’. I bet that he was attached to Powerlab while he recorded his singing!


  1. […] It turns out that the next two weeks are a perfect opportunity to measure my ‘normal’ life and compare it against an upheaval in my routine – a contrast that might provide interesting information about the interactions between my physiology, my lifestyle and environment. Indeed, we learn a lot about health at the extremes of physiology. […]

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