Being an astronaut necessitates perfect 20/20 vision, but the effects of space can cause astronauts to return to Earth with impaired vision. Now, UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers have developed a sleeping bag that could prevent or reduce these issues by sucking fluid out of astronauts’ heads.
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More than half of NASA astronauts who spent more than six months on the International Space Station (ISS) developed vision problems to varying degrees. According to the BBC, astronaut John Philips returned from a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station in 2005 with his vision reduced from 20/20 to 20/100.
This could be a problem for multi-year missions to Mars, for example. “It would be a disaster if astronauts had such severe impairments that they couldn’t see what they were doing and the mission was jeopardized,” lead researcher Dr. Benjamin Levine told the BBC.
When you sleep, fluids tend to accumulate in your head, but gravity pulls them back down into your body when you wake up. In space, however, more than a half gallon of fluid accumulates in the head due to the low gravity.
This, in turn, puts pressure on the eyeball, causing flattening and vision impairment — a condition known as spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome, or SANS. (Dr. Levine discovered SANS by transporting cancer patients on zero-G parabolic flights.
They still had chemotherapy ports in their heads, which provided researchers with an access point to measure pressure within their brains.)
To combat SANS, researchers collaborated with outdoor equipment manufacturer REI to create a sleeping bag that fits around the waist and encloses the lower body. A suction device similar to a vacuum cleaner is then activated, drawing fluid toward the feet and preventing it from accumulating in the head.
A group of about a dozen people volunteered to put the technology to the test, and the results were positive.
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Before NASA brings the technology aboard the ISS, some questions must be answered, including the optimal amount of time astronauts should spend in the sleeping bag each day. They must also decide whether every astronaut should use one or just those who are at risk of developing SANS.
Nonetheless, Dr. Levine is optimistic that SANS will no longer be an issue by the time NASA is ready to launch to Mars. “This is perhaps one of the most mission-critical medical issues that has been discovered in the last decade for the space program,” he said in a statement.
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