The significance of visual assessments for astronauts during space missions

Expanding visual assessments in space.


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The space exposome shows how much exposure an individual has to their surroundings and how this exposure interacts with other parts of their characteristics, such as age, sex, and genetics. As a result, it acts as a unifying framework that exemplifies the interactions between all environmental impacts on the human body. This framework will determine how space travel will impact the human system.

Spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome (SANS), a condition connected with spaceflight, is one of the potential obstacles to human long-duration spaceflight. SANS is a collection of neuro-ocular imaging and clinical abnormalities, such as cotton wool spots, chorioretinal folds, posterior globe flattening, and unilateral and bilateral optic disc edema (ODE).

Although a significant obstacle to upcoming space travel, the pathophysiology of SANS needs to be better understood. The neuro-ophthalmic system’s structural and functional impacts of microgravity are also still being studied.

The importance of visual assessments for astronauts during space missions is the subject of ground-breaking research published in Prehospital and Disaster Medicine. The paper offers a case for expanding scheduled visual assessments, such as dynamic visual, contrast sensitivity (CS), visual field testing, and metamorphopsia assessment using virtual reality while in space.

Authored by a team of esteemed and NASA-funded researchers, the team is the first group combining Artificial Intelligence with Virtual/Augmented Reality to help maintain astronaut vision during long-duration spaceflight.

Prior research has shown that 69% of the American crew members on the ISS have at least one eye with an increase in the peripapillary retinal nerve fiber layer thickness (RNFL) as measured by optical coherence tomography (OCT). This goes along with ophthalmoscopic indications of optic disc edema (ODE). The “hyperopic shift” and chorioretinal folds are two additional ocular abnormalities in astronauts.

ODE might cause the blind spot and other visual field scotomas to enlarge, but the ISS doesn’t yet have an autonomous perimeter. The SANS evidence report states that a potential side effect of SANS is an impaired vision or visual acuity that glasses or contact lenses cannot correct.

In this study, scientists made a case for expanding scheduled visual assessments during spaceflight to include CS, dynamic visual acuity (DVA), visual field perimetry, and head-mounted metamorphopsia assessment. These clinically insightful assessments may play a key role in determining the structural and functional changes associated with SANS, which is crucial to maintaining astronaut vision during long-term space flight and developing countermeasures.

Scientists noted, “This research opens up exciting possibilities for improving astronaut well-being, performance, and mission success. This paper contributes to a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by astronauts and paves the way for more comprehensive healthcare solutions during space exploration missions.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Ethan Waisberg, Joshua Ong, Mouayad Masalkhi et al. The Case for Expanding Visual Assessments During Spaceflight. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine. DOI: 10.1017/S1049023X23005964