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Launching Ophthalmology in Space

February 2, 2015

With the recent successes of the European Space Agency’s landing its Rosetta probe spacecraft on a comet, there is a lot of attention and renewed enthusiasm over outer space. Since first landing on the moon in 1969, the number of studies about outer space, planets and the effects of space travel have exponentially increased. One major research area funded by a NASA-backed entity aims to determine the best method for safeguarding the eyes during and after long-duration space travel.

The NASA-backed entity known as the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) teamed up with an ophthalmic business development firm called The Magnum Group. Together, the team of ophthalmologists and business representatives hope to address the challenges that men and women face on long-term space missions.

Historically, the NSBRI was concentrated on providing NASA with non-invasive medical technologies to measure pressure on the brain. Recent studies, however, have found that the ocular changes and changes to the optic nerve may be the result of prolonged microgravity exposure. With this new information in mind, the NSBRI has shifted its focus to ophthalmology topics in an effort to protect and treat any problems that astronauts may face with their eyes.

For astronauts flying International Space Station (ISS) missions, flights last approximately six months. For those flying with NASA, each mission tends to last two to three months, due to the elimination of the space shuttle program in 2011. Astronauts who are completing long-term missions, such as those with ISS and NASA, are experiencing eye problems both during and after space flight. Some of these disorders include refractive errors, spots and other pathologies that can sometimes be irreversible.

On Earth, humans are tuned into gravity, meaning that the body pumps fluids up towards the head to keep it from gathering in the legs. In space, however, the body continues to pump these fluids upward, even though there is no gravity to pull them back down. Consequently, this means that there is an excess of fluid in the head, a problem that has been found to affect as many as 60% of astronauts, typically those who completed longer missions lasting longer than one month.

The build-up of fluid in the head causes a variety of vision disorders, including the inability to focus the eyes, a problem that has led a number of astronauts to end their careers in space for safety reasons.

At this time, the NSBRI has only recently begun to research into ways to prevent these ocular problems from occurring by trying to find a way to regulate the movement of fluid in the body when an astronaut is in space. The occurrence of ocular problems in space has been observed for some time, but has just started to be proactively investigated. After more research has been conducted, ophthalmologists and astronauts alike will know whether the problems can be prevented and how to best treat them.

With vision breakthroughs on the horizon, there is hope that astronauts will no longer have to worry about losing their vision the next time they launch into space. Stay tuned for more information regarding eye care for astronauts.

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