Evidence for the initiation of decompression sickness by exposure to intense underwater sound

Dror Tal, Hofit Shachar-Bener, Dov Hershkovitz, Yehuda Arieli, Avi Shupak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mass stranding of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), in close association with the activity of naval sonar systems, has been reported on numerous occasions. Necropsy showed bubble-associated lesions similar to those described in human decompression sickness (DCS). We examined the hypothesis that exposure to underwater sound may potentiate DCS. Rats were subjected to immersion and simulated dives with and without simultaneous acoustic transmissions at pressure levels and frequencies of 204 dB/8 kHz and 183.3 dB/15 kHz. DCS severity was assessed using the rotating wheel method. Recording of somatosensory evoked potentials (SSEPs) was employed under general anesthesia as an electrophysiological measure of neurologic insult. A significantly higher rate of decompression sickness was found among animals exposed to the 204-dB/8-kHz sound field. Significantly higher pathological SSEPs scores were noted for both underwater sound protocols. Pathological SSEPs scores in animals immersed during the acoustic transmissions, but without changes in ambient pressure, were comparable to those observed in animals exposed to the dive profile. The results demonstrate induction of neurological damage by intense underwater sound during immersion, with a further deleterious effect when this was combined with decompression stress. The study outcome has potential implications for human diving safety and may provide an explanation for the mass stranding of cetaceans purportedly associated with sonar activity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1521-1529
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 the American Physiological Society.


  • Bioeffect
  • Decompression sickness
  • Rectified diffusion
  • Somatosensory evoked potentials
  • Underwater acoustics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • General Neuroscience


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