Houston, we have a checkup: UCF doctors study microgravity effects on astronauts

Researchers from the UCF College of Medicine collaborated with the Sheba Medical Center and the Rabin Medical Center in Israel to study the effects of microgravity on the eyes and brain of astronauts in the Axiom Mission 1. The astronauts, who are scheduled to come back to Earth on Monday, will complete post-flight testing at UCF Health clinic and UCF Lake Nona Hospital. (From left to right: Dr. Ali Rizvi, Dr. Mehul Patel and Dr. Joyce Paulson.) 

After spending two weeks in space, four astronauts will come back to Earth on Monday and help doctors at UCF explore the effects of space travel on the human brain and eyes.

Doctors from the UCF College of Medicine collaborated with two Israeli medical centers to analyze the brain and eyes of the astronauts in the Axiom Mission 1 before they launched on April 8.

Researchers will re-examine the crew, which includes Eytan Stibbe, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Michael López-Alegría, at UCF Health and the UCF Lake Nona Hospital to evaluate potential changes in their organs. 

“I'll be waiting with my arms wide open to catch them as they come in,” said Dr. Mehul Patel, an ophthalmologist at UCF Health. "All the tests that we did before launch, we're going to do them again." 

Patel is one of the doctors participating in the study focusing on spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome or SANS.

SANS is associated with microgravity, a condition in which the force of gravity is reduced, according to NASA. The syndrome causes swelling of the optic nerves, changes the internal eye structures and decreases vision, according to the agency. 

Patel said looking at the eye structures before and after humans have been exposed to microgravity will help the team understand the syndrome and find ways to prevent it. 

“Microgravity, the increased radiation, the higher amount of carbon dioxide at the space station, all of these things are going to impact how the body functions on a baseline physiology," Patel said. "And we want to see what those changes are." 

Dr. Gal Antman, an ophthalmology resident at Rabin Medical Center in Israel, is working alongside Patel. He said the study is using advanced technology that shows eye structures in high resolution. 

“We are conducting a new modality that is able to see the vasculature, the blood vessels of the eyes,” Antman said. “It’s new and it has not been conducted on astronauts until this day.” 

Another group of researchers will focus on the effects of microgravity on the protective barrier of the brain. 

Dr. Harel Baris from the Sheba Medical Center in Israel is joined by UCF endocrinologist Dr. Ali Rizvi and UCF internist Dr. Joyce Paulson in a study that examines changes in the blood-brain barrier of humans during space travel.  

The blood-brain barrier refers to the tissue that protects the brain from harmful substances, according to the National Cancer Institute

“It acts as a biochemical barrier that doesn't allow free movement of any kind of substance to enter and possibly affect the central nervous system in a negative manner,” Rizvi said.

Rizvi said the goal is to understand the modifications of the structure and how doctors can use them to their advantage. 

Baris, who is the primary investigator of the research, said the team will measure the enlargement of the pores in the barrier and evaluate the possibility of administering medication through those pores. He said the goal is to treat conditions that deteriorate the cells in the nervous system by letting medication enter the functional tissue of the brain.

“Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or other dementia are a major problem in modern world,” Baris said. “The inability to transfer therapeutic agent into the brain parenchyma is a major challenge that we all are facing.” 

Baris’ study will be assisted by UCF researcher Dr. Michal Masternak and a group of UCF graduate students, who will analyze blood samples and trace specific proteins.  

Masternak said the process has been challenging, from collecting samples from astronauts following the schedule of the International Space Station to preparing for when they arrive on Earth on Monday. 

"We have to be ready to collect some samples and process the samples in our lab early in the morning like at 4 a.m.," Masternak said. "But we are really excited. So, it doesn't matter for us and it's not only about me and my personal interest in this project, but also our students, they have a chance to participate in this." 

Dr. Amoy Fraser, manager of clinical research at UCF, said the partnership with Axiom Space brings UCF closer to NASA and opens up opportunities for future collaborations. 

“We're in Orlando and the closest medical school to the Kennedy Space Center, so all the clinical trials they want to do are best done with collaboration from us,” Fraser said.  

Fraser also said working with two Israeli medical centers brings recognition to UCF and the College of Medicine both nationally and internationally. 

The Ax-1 mission, which was originally scheduled to last 10 days, was delayed due to unfavorable weather conditions on Tuesday. The mission is now set to undock from the ISS around 8:55 p.m. on Sunday and splash down off the coast of Florida around 1 p.m on Monday, according to Axiom Space.

Without hesitation to express his excitement to work with the crew, Patel said the team is aiming to receive the astronauts at UCF Health facilities within 72 hours of the splashdown, but protocols to ensure the crew's safety may delay the process. 

"We would love to get them, you know, on that taxi from wherever they splashed down to here, like straight into the clinic, but that's not realistic," Patel said. "So, as soon as they're allowed to come to us, we will perform all the exams.” 

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