Attention, Frequent Flyers: Watch Out for Brain Drain

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UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD/CORBIS

Before jet lag: Or was it propeller lag?

Long-distance plane travel generally follows a fairly predictable pattern:

Planning phase: Traveler is excited. Oooh, I can hardly believe I’m actually taking this trip! I wonder how many pairs of shoes I should pack… Does is usually rain in Mongolia this time of year?

Arriving at airport: Traveler — especially this one — is anxious. Will the flight take off on time? Will the airline lose my luggage? What is that weird metal thing hanging off the side of the airplane?

En route: Traveler is captive. Yes, excuse me, miss? Do you think you could ask the man sitting next to me to stop with the incessant coughing? Or could you at least find him a handkerchief?

Arrival at destination: Traveler is in coma-like state. Must…locate…luggage…. Must…. Oh, forget it. Must…locate…hotel…

Twenty-four hours following arrival: Traveler is in jet lag-induced delirium. Hello, there, Mr. Sandwich. How are you today? I am going to eat you now; I hope you don’t mind.

Even occasional travelers know it well: That cobwebby, vaguely woozy feeling that descends into the crevices of consciousness after a long, time zone jumping flight. For most of us, jet lag fades over the course of a day or two, during which time we may feel the need to take illicit and ill-advised nap — right in the middle of the afternoon! For flight attendants and pilots who make their living traversing the globe, however, the effects of jet lag may be a bit more serious.

According to scientists at the University of Bristol, England, flight attendants who travel long distances without taking adequate breaks may be damaging a part of their brains responsible for spatial orientation and some cognitive function.

Does this mean that every time you take a transatlantic flight you’re putting your future mental functioning at risk? Not necessarily; the study’s authors point out these results could have been linked more clearly to sleep deprivation than to jet lag. But isn’t it fun to speculate?

To conduct their small study, researchers rounded up a small group of airline workers who flew more than seven time zones at a time and measured their bodies’ functions before and after long flights. They found that attendants who were given only a short recovery time (five days or fewer in their "home" time zone) between long flights performed worse on reaction-time and vision tests than those on a longer-term recovery schedule. Researchers also pinpointed a specific area of the brain (the right temporal lobe, which controls visual and spatial memory) which became markedly smaller in the short-term recovery group than in the long-term subjects. It may not be permanent — but it sure sounds unpleasant. The brain, scientists speculate, needs at least 10 days to recover from a multiple time zone trip.

It all sounds quite dire, but this is actually fantastic news for those of us whose employment does not directly depend upon darting in and out of international locales on a semi-daily basis. These findings, after all, provide us with a great excuse for extending our vacations: You wanted me back at the office for that board meeting next week? Ooh, sorry. No can do. I’ve recently learned that returning from Fiji so quickly could be dangerous to my spatial cognitive functioning. And I really can’t imagine you’d want an employee hampered by such a terrible impediment hanging around the office.