NASA is concerned about the latest study out of the University of Texas Medical School. Researchers at the school have found that protracted space travel may deform eyeballs, according to a press release from the Radiological Society of North America issued Tuesday.
The researchers report that resonance imaging (MRI) of the eyes and brains of 27 astronauts who spent prolonged periods of time in space, have revealed optical abnormalities similar to those that can occur in intracranial hypertension of unknown cause, a potentially serious condition in which pressure builds within the skull.
The researchers examined data from 27 astronauts, each of whom were exposed to zero gravity for an average of 108 days while on space missions or in the International Space Station. Eight of the 27 astronauts underwent a second MRI exam after a second space mission that lasted an average of 39 days.
“The MRI findings revealed various combinations of abnormalities following both short- and long-term cumulative exposure to microgravity also seen with idiopathic intracranial hypertension,” said Larry Kramer, a professor of diagnostic and interventional imaging at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, in a statement.
Despite the obvious health implications of the study for NASA’s astronauts, researchers are confident that study will help scientists understand more about intracranial hypertension in non-astronauts.
“These changes that occur during exposure to microgravity may help scientists to better understand the mechanisms responsible for intracranial hypertension in non-space traveling patients,” Mr. Kramer added.
NASA is concerned about the study’s findings, The Register reports. The online newspaper says that NASA has demanded a study for all of its future astronauts after learning that space travel may deform eyeballs.
“This work has certainly has raised the level of concern at NASA,” Mr. Kramer explained to The Register. The researchers, however, met with NASA to discuss the study’s findings and their implication for space travel.
“As a result of the study, before publication, we’ve had several meetings with NASA and now every astronaut is going to be checked,” Mr. Kramer added.
“NASA has placed this problem high on its list of human risks, has initiated a comprehensive program to study its mechanisms and implications, and will continue to closely monitor the situation,” said William Tarver, chief of flight medicine clinic at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in a statement.
This is not the first time that NASA has been concerned about the physical impact of space travel on astronauts, nor will it be the last time. In a 1998 press release, NASA discussed the health risks associated with space travel.
Back in 1961, when the Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, NASA was concerned about the impact of zero-gravity on the human body. Mr. Gagarin and U.S. astronaut John Glenn helped NASA scientists come to the realization that space travel has no immediate health risks, but that small changes in the human body can lead to larger impacts over time.
For example, NASA scientists were concerned about the risk of developing a kidney stone, because the body quickly rids itself of a lot fluid when gravity is no longer moving blood down through the legs.
“The greatest risk appears early in flight and immediately thereafter,” said Dr. Robert Pietrzyk of Krug Life Sciences at the Johnson Space Center.
Studies, such as the one recently published in the journal Radiology, will help protect astronauts and answer persistent questions about the health risks of prolonged exposure to space travel.