When the human brain goes diving: using NIRS to measure cerebral and systemic cardiovascular responses to deep, breath-hold diving in elite freedivers

Chris McKnight*, Eric Mulder, Alexander Ruesch, Jana Kainerstorfer, Jingyi Wu, Naser Hakimi, Steven Thomas Balfour, Mathijs Bronkhorst, Jorn Horschig, Frank Pernett, Katsufumi Sato, Gordon Drummond Hastie, Peter Lloyd Tyack, Erika Schagatay

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Continuous measurements of haemodynamic and oxygenation changes in free living animals remain elusive. However, developments in biomedical technologies may help to fill this knowledge gap. One such technology is continuous-wave near-infrared spectroscopy (CW-NIRS)—a wearable and non-invasive optical technology. Here, we develop a marinized CW-NIRS system and deploy it on elite competition freedivers to test its capacity to function during deep freediving to 107 m depth. We use the oxyhaemoglobin and deoxyhaemoglobin concentration changes measured with CW-NIRS to monitor cerebral haemodynamic changes and oxygenation, arterial saturation and heart rate. Furthermore, using concentration changes in oxyhaemoglobin engendered by cardiac pulsation, we demonstrate the ability to conduct additional feature exploration of cardiac-dependent haemodynamic changes. Freedivers showed cerebral haemodynamic changes characteristic of apnoeic diving, while some divers also showed considerable elevations in venous blood volumes close to the end of diving. Some freedivers also showed pronounced arterial deoxygenation, the most extreme of which resulted in an arterial saturation of 25%. Freedivers also displayed heart rate changes that were comparable to diving mammals both in magnitude and patterns of change. Finally, changes in cardiac waveform associated with heart rates less than 40 bpm were associated with changes indicative of a reduction in vascular compliance. The success here of CW-NIRS to non-invasively measure a suite of physiological phenomenon in a deep-diving mammal highlights its efficacy as a future physiological monitoring tool for human freedivers as well as free living animals.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages11
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1831
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jun 2021


  • Near-infrared spectroscopy
  • Freediving
  • Breath-hold diving
  • SpO2
  • Cerbral oxygenation
  • Diving physiology


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