A Blind Spot in Space
Humans have long dreamed of traveling through the far reaches of space — populating other planets and creating societies there. NASA has announced it hopes to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.
But how do you “boldly go where no one has gone before” if you can’t see where you are going?
One health issue related to long duration space travel is the negative impacts to the human eye. Astronauts who have spent six months on the International Space Station return to Earth with significant eye damage, including decreased near vision, globe flattening, optic disc edema, and retinal nerve fiber layer thickening, studies show.
"Vision impairment is a real problem, not only for our astronauts but also for our larger hopes at deep space travel and exploration,” said Joe Law, director of NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium and associate dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Idaho. "If we plan to send humans to Mars, we cannot have them arriving blind."
The adverse impacts of space travel on human health present a significant challenge to space travel goals, and one that researchers and NASA are working hard to address. In 2005, NASA established the Human Research Program to provide human health and performance countermeasures, knowledge, technologies, and tools to enable safe human space exploration.
UI assistant professor of biological engineering Bryn Martin is part of the effort to address zero gravity health issues. Martin is leading a team of graduate and undergraduate students conducting an experimental study to examine the effects of space travel on the human eye, funded by the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium.
Martin leads the Department of Biological Engineering’s Neurophysiological Imaging and Modeling Laboratory (NIML) and is an expert in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computational modeling and analysis. His research is dedicated to improving the health and well-being of people affected by central nervous system diseases and disorders.
Martin’s team includes biological engineering graduate student Jesse Rohr and undergraduate computer science major Austin Sass. Martin and his team plan to quantify changes in the eye geometry of 10 NASA astronauts. All astronauts in the study will undergo MRI scans pre- and post-space flight. The duration of each astronaut’s spaceflight time will be recorded along with basic biophysical measures. 3-D models of astronaut eyes and optic nerves will be created from the MRI images for analysis.
“3-D models allow us to efficiently assess interesting characteristics and changes in astronaut physiology,” Rohr said.
“Once the models are created, we use MATLAB and other programs to run many measurements and tests simultaneously resulting in a better understanding of what is really occurring and why. This will allow us to better identify astronauts who will be able to safely operate in long-term space missions.” Martin is enthusiastic about the potential the research has on helping NASA achieve its goals, shedding light on gravity’s importance to human health and advancing our overall knowledge of the human body by applying engineering principles.
“Our research may lead to selection of astronauts that have a lower chance of getting eye problems in space and/or it may lead to new ideas for countermeasures that could reduce eye damage,” Martin said. “Ultimately, we want to understand human physiology in greater detail. These discoveries may lead to unintended positive impact on treatment of a host of terrestrial cerebrospinal fluid system disorders.”
The work also will lead engineers to develop solutions and technologies to protect human eyes from the negative effects of space travel. In addition, Martin’s research team is gaining invaluable research experience while investigating the complex interplay between zero gravity and human physiology.
“I have been working on an automated method for quantifying optic nerve/optic nerve sheath geometry from magnetic resonance images,” Sass said. “It hasn't been easy, but we've been able to come up with a pretty neat algorithm for doing this. It truly excites me to see how I'm able to apply my knowledge as a computer science major to solve an important real-world, I mean out-of-this-world, problem.”
Article by Rob Patton, College of Engineering