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How does the time astronauts spend in space affect the eyes and brain?

05/30 07:57

Understanding the effects of microgravity on the human body is essential to enabling astronauts to travel into the harsh environment of space for months or even years.

Scientists have studied changes in the skeletal and muscular system over decades, and strategies to maintain physical fitness through various countermeasures, including rigorous exercise, are being applied aboard the International Space Station.

Does this fluid also accumulate in or around the eye?

Optical researchers are working to better understand whether fluid that heads toward the head during spaceflight is changing the shape of the eye, or if fluid is accumulating at the back of the eye. The imaging technology, called optical coherence tomography, uses a special camera to take pictures of the back of the eye, helping researchers to better understand the effects of fluid buildup in tissues there.

“Since astronauts flew short-duration space shuttle missions, we’ve known that vision changes during spaceflight faster than expected during the same time period on Earth,” says Dr.

However, once we started seeing swelling in the back of the eye surrounding the optic nerve, this became even more concerning because it could potentially lead to long-term vision changes that cannot be fixed with new prescription lenses.”

Another challenge for scientists is that astronauts may not fit into a one-size-fits-all treatment approach.

While all astronauts are chronically weightless, about 70 percent of them show early signs of fluid buildup in the back of the eye, and only 15 percent show more worrisome signs. When they return to Earth’s gravity, these changes can take up to a year to resolve, with some eye changes never fully returning to what they were before spaceflight. Both men and women are affected, in one or both eyes.

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Dr Lowry concluded that researchers and clinicians “closely monitor astronauts during and after spaceflight to determine if permanent changes in vision have emerged, while continuing to research to learn more about the reasons behind these changes.”