NASA-Funded Research Institute Studies Prolonged Space Exposure in Humans

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SAN FRANCISCO — As NASA officials prepare plans to send astronauts on lengthy missions outside Earth’s orbit, the challenges of keeping people healthy, strong and alert become even greater. Astronauts will encounter harsh radiation, isolation from family and friends, as well as dust particles that could damage their lungs, according to Dr. Jeffrey P. Sutton, director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI).

Finding treatments and technology to counter these and other physiological and psychological problems associated with long-duration human spaceflight is the job of NSBRI, a NASA-funded nonprofit organization housed at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. With 19 employees, NSBRI oversees the work of scientists, engineers and physicians participating in 60 research projects being conducted at universities, research organizations and companies in 20 states.

Increasingly, the work also involves international cooperation and collaboration, Sutton said. Three NSBRI researchers are participating in a 105-day isolation study that began March 31 and is being conducted by the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP). During the study, which is designed to provide insight into crew health and performance during lengthy missions, six volunteers including two cosmonauts are eating, sleeping, working and living in an enclosed five-module isolation chamber at the IBMP facility in Moscow.

Through an international agreement with IBMP, NSBRI is overseeing the work of three U.S. principal investigators participating in the isolation study. Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard University’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital is testing whether shorter-wavelength light sources improve the mood and performance of the astronauts who are working night shifts. David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine is evaluating two unobtrusive techniques to gauge stress-related performance issues. The techniques include video monitoring of facial expressions and a cognitive test designed to evaluate attention, response speed and impulsivity. In the third project, Dr. Nick Kanas of the University of CaliforniaSan Francisco, is evaluating whether increased crew autonomy influences performance and interpersonal interactions.

Other NSBRI research teams conducting studies and experiments in the United States are developing technology and treatments to prevent bone and muscle loss during extended missions, preserve cardiovascular health, maintain physical fitness and mental performance, support immune functions and shield astronauts from the harmful effects of radiation.

Instead of conducting basic research, NSBRI teams focus on delivering results, Sutton said. “NSBRI strives to advance projects from research to development to testing and evaluation to [spaceflight] integration,” he added.

To ensure that projects undertaken are adapted for the unique conditions of spaceflight, NSBRI relies on a panel of current and former astronauts and flight surgeons. That group, known as the User Panel, is convened to review proposals and offer advice on projects. The User Panel helps NSBRI researchers determine whether a specific cognitive test is too time-consuming and whether technology being developed is too cumbersome to be used aboard a spacecraft, said NSBRI spokeswoman Kathryn Major.

In addition to supporting human spaceflight, NSBRI supports efforts to examine terrestrial applications for space-related treatments and technology. For example, NSBRI provided the initial funding for a sensor and monitor developed by Dr. BabsSoller of the University of Massachusetts that uses infrared light to measure a person’s oxygen consumption, blood and tissue chemistry. While that device could be extremely useful in space, it also could be an important tool for battlefield medics, Sutton said.

NSBRI is led by a consortium that includes Baylor College of Medicine, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, The Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Morehouse School of Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Rice University, Texas A&M University, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, University of Pennsylvania Health System and University of Washington.

Since it was founded in 1997, NSBRI’s staff has worked in a suite of offices in the Texas Medical Center. The Institute also has offices near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, also in Houston. During the next one to two years, NSBRI officials hope to move into a separate facility large enough to house offices and a laboratory where biomedical research and development can be conducted prior to its transition to NASA. “We’ve written this into the strategic plan,” Sutton said. “We have good support from the NSBRI Board of Directors, NASA and Baylor College of Medicine.”

A dedicated NSBRI facility would also strengthen the institute’s national education and outreach activities, Sutton said. NSBRI offers a variety of educational programs for students and teachers from elementary school through graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships. Educational materials are designed to strengthen interest in space life sciences and raise public awareness concerning the benefits of the space program, he added.

NASA funding for NSBRI has remained at an annual level of $24 million since 2006. When inflation is taken into account, the NSBRI budget has been shrinking steadily. At some point, the institute will have to scale back its extensive research program if the budget remains level, Sutton said. “If the nation decides to increase NASA’s budget and maintain our pre-eminent position in human spaceflight, the NSBRI budget should grow accordingly,” he added.

NSBRI at a Glance

Mission:

To accomplish the integrated biomedical research necessary to support long-term human presence, development and exploration of space and to enhance life on Earth by applying the resultant advances in human knowledge and technology.

Parent Organization:

NASA

Top Official:

Dr. Jeffrey P. Sutton, Director; and Dr. Bobby R. Alford, Chairman of the Board

Location:

Houston

Annual Budget:

$24 million

Personnel:

19 employees