AUSTIN (KXAN) — A medical disorder similar to one commonly found in babies, hydrocephalus, has been detected in astronauts spending long periods of time in outer space. The disorder causes a pressure buildup of spinal fluid which can then cause brain damage and damage to the optic nerve.
“I was having the normal changes with bone and muscle,” said astronaut Michael Barratt. “I didn’t expect to see my vision change like it did.” Barratt served aboard the International Space Station in 2009 and 2011, specializing in aerospace medicine.
While onboard, he noticed he and several other crew members became farsighted. They couldn’t see things as clearly up close. Their eyeballs had flattened, and their optic nerves had begun to swell.
“We brought some of these crew members home, myself included. We’ve done spinal taps that show that the pressure was a bit higher than we expected.”
Despite the symptoms, Barratt said the astronauts felt no discomfort or pain.
Searching for solutions in Austin, Texas
Barratt recently shared his story in Austin as part of the 17th National Conference on Hydrocephalus. The conference was put on by the Hydrocephalus Association and sponsored by Dell Children’s Medical Center.
Joining Barratt were Dr. Michael A. Williams and Astronaut Scott Poteet. Williams is an expert on Hydrocephalus. “In hydrocephalus, the circulation of the spinal fluid, which is the normal fluid within the brain, and the pressure of the spinal fluid can be abnormal.”
Williams studies the disorder occurring in astronauts, which they call SANS (Spaceflight Associated Neuro-ocular syndrome). He hopes by studying the disorder, they can find solutions for hydrocephalus.
“Astronauts who are on very long duration spaceflight who can’t return to Earth may develop such significant swelling of the optic nerve that their vision could be impaired.”
“When we’re flying people for six months at a time, it seems to progress further. What happens when we fly longer, if we want to go to Mars,” Barratt said.
Studying brain disorders with SpaceX
The next step for studying the way SANS is impacting astronauts involves SpaceX. Astronaut Scott Poteet, commander of the Polaris Dawn mission, will be outfitted with a special device designed to monitor the pressure of his spinal fluid.
“The device that we’re hoping to implant in the astronaut involves putting a permanent tube into the spinal fluid of the low back and connecting it to a sensor and having it all implanted under the skin,” Williams said.
This “shunt” or tube to be inserted in Poteet’s back has not yet been approved for use. If it does, it will be the first of its kind to monitor spinal fluid in a zero-g environment. Using a shunt to relieve pressure is a common treatment for babies with hydrocephalus on Earth, although it is typically inserted in the skull.
Thirty-six other experiments will occur during the flight, including tests of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system.
The Polaris Dawn mission will launch this November. It will orbit the Earth for five days and will be the first low orbit flight to be crewed entirely by private citizens.
“We honestly don’t know what happens to their spinal fluid pressure,” Williams said. “If it is a problem, having a sensor like that implanted not just in one astronaut, but in future astronauts can help us to determine whether the treatments that we offer are effective.”
Barratt hopes the research will help open up space for you and me. “We’re trying to open up the space frontier and really see more and more people coming behind us as we go out there.”