Decompression sickness, also known as the bends, is a bit of a mystery to doctors because it's not easy to study what's happening to human cells at super high pressures far below the sea surface.
Scientists at the Office of Naval Research and the Navy Experimental Diving Unit are especially interested in the bends because their divers go to depths of around 1,000 feet - recreational scuba divers typically go to around 30 feet. So the ONR and NEDU created an artificial extreme deep sea environment where they can perform studies at the molecular level. Other artificial hyperbaric environments exist, but none allow researchers to study exactly what happens to cells in the super deep sea.
The technology lets them use "patch clamping," which involves attaching electrodes to a cell membrane so scientists can monitor, stimulate and record ion channels across cells in a highly pressurized environment.
The military researchers hope the new tool will lead to new ways to prevent and treat decompression sickness, and nitrogen narcosis, which causes intoxication-like symptoms. But the general scuba diving population would benefit as well. Treatment for the bends now is straight oxygen, and prevention is rising to the surface slowly or taking decompression stops.
If like me you've always wondered what the hell the bends actually is, I just did the Googling for both of us. When you dive into deep water, your body experiences much greater pressure from the water than it does in regular air. And for air to come out of the tank that scuba divers breathe from, it has to be at the same pressure as the water. That means while diving, what you're inhaling is highly pressurized. While your body is under that same pressure, it's not a problem. But as you rise to the surface and the water pressure is reduced, nitrogen bubbles from the air respond to the reduced pressure by releasing into the blood and tissues of the body. It's kind of like when you try to open a can of soda that someone shook: do it fast and it sprays everywhere. Do it slowly and you might not get Mountain Dew all over your shirt. Unfortunately the analogy here is extreme pain or death.