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Life sciences – human physiology

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  • André Kuipers trainiert mit dem Eye Tracking Device
    André Kuipers trains with the Eye Tracking Device

    ESA Astronaut André Kuipers trains with the Eye Tracking Device.

Hormonal and immunological changes in astronauts during and after spaceflight - IMMUNO

Scientists have long been aware that spending time in space affects an astronaut’s immune system, but the exact reason for this, and the mechanisms at work, are not well understood. A variety of stress factors, such as isolation, workload and disrupted sleep pattern, are probably some of the triggers. But living in space is also associated with a number of special conditions such as weightlessness and radiation, which also play a part. Seriously ill people on Earth have to contend with similar immunological problems. In both cases, there needs to be a sufficient ability to fight off disease but at the same time the immune system must not be overtaxed.

Scientists at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich are studying the changes in the immune systems of the permanent ISS crew using a wide range of biochemical analyses combined with psychological testing. Using comparisons with isolation and bed rest studies, they hope to draw conclusions about the contribution of individual factors and the immune defence mechanism. This research is important to the development of new preventive and therapeutic treatment for astronauts and seriously ill patients in intensive care.

Coordinator: A. Chouker (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich)

Human orientation in space during extended periods of weightlessness - ETD

The symptoms of motion sickness, also known as ‘kinetosis’, include skin pallor, cold sweats, nausea and vomiting. Sufferers also frequently complain of lethargy and fatigue. This phenomenon often occurs on board ships, which is why it is also known as seasickness or travel sickness. When astronauts suffer from these same symptoms in space because of altered gravity, the condition is known as space sickness.

Nowadays, kinetosis is generally recognised to be the result of a sensory conflict, with two different systems of the body ‘competing’ with each other: the body’s sense of balance (controlled by the vestibular system in the inner ear), which continually detects the orientation of the head compared with the force of gravity, and the sense of sight.

If these systems transmit contradictory information to the brain, this can result in sensory conflict. For example, in zero gravity the eyes may continue to transmit the usual information to the brain, but the inner ear is no longer receiving any stimuli to tell it how the body is oriented against gravity.

As yet there are no satisfactory solutions for treating or preventing kinetosis. It is possible to alleviate certain symptoms with medication, but this does not address the actual problem. Onboard the ISS, a new device called 3-D ETD (Eye Tracking Device) is being used to measure astronauts’ eye movements in order to study the sense of balance.

Researchers hope that this will help them understand the processes that can lead to kinetosis, making it possible to make better diagnoses and offer better therapy for balance and motion disorders both in space and in clinical practice.

The Eye Tracking Device has now also been successfully marketed by two spin-off companies in Berlin in a number of commercial ventures. The range of potential applications is very broad. Such applications might include detecting fatigue in lorry and bus drivers, process control in laser eye surgery to correct short-sightedness and diagnose a variety of neurological conditions such as dizziness, or even tracking the movements of the head and eyes in test individuals for research into advertising effectiveness.

German scientists are also involved in two other human physiology experiments: the CARD experiment for the cardiovascular system and the EDOS experiment for bone metabolism.

Coordinator: A. Clarke (Charité Berlin)

Last modified:
24/06/2011 10:29:36