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Long-Term Study Images Astronauts’ Hearts

July 25, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Cardiac Imaging
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Astronauts are going to be taking ultrasound images of their arteries while in space as part of a long-term study of oxidative stress and inflammation caused by the conditions of space flight. The results could help workers back on Earth whose jobs can put them at risk of similar problems.

Oxidative stress involves an imbalance in the body’s ability to handle free radicals and peroxides produced as byproducts of normal oxygen-consuming cell metabolism. The resulting inflammation can spur the development of atherosclerosis. Astronauts are exposed to just about every oxidative stress risk factor: radiation, psychological stress, reduced physical activity, and, when they don spacesuits for work outside the International Space Station, increased oxygen exposure. Steven H. Platts, PhD, explained:

It’s a perfect storm of things known to cause oxidative stress all happening at the same time. So this study will enable us to answer some important questions, such as, do these factors work together to make things worse? Are any of them at high enough exposure to cause damage?

Platts is a lead scientist for cardiovascular research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and principal investigator for the study. He was quoted in a NASA news release. To read more about the study details, click here.

Before launch and after they return to earth, the astronauts’ cardiovascular systems will be imaged, and blood and urine samples will be taken. The same measurements will be taken during the regular checkups that astronauts get one, three, and five years after each flight. And while in space, the astronauts will take ultrasounds of their carotid artery thickness and brachial artery dilation. “This is the first cardiovascular study to cover such a long period,” said Dr. Platts.

Some earthbound workers are subject to much the same conditions as astronauts, including long-haul jet pilots, train engineers, radiation plant workers, and scientists posted to Antarctica. Even shift workers experience disruptions of daily rhythms and sleep patterns similar to those undergone by astronauts. So the findings could help them as well.

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