NASA has partnered with James D. Thomas, MD, of the Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute, to study the effect of space travel on the human heart – in particular, the problem of orthostatic hypotension (a condition in which your blood pressure falls when you stand up quickly), of which lightheadedness is a symptom.
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“We need to understand what happens to the heart in space before we can venture to Mars or beyond,” says Dr. Thomas, an echocardiologist.
Dr. Thomas and his colleagues have been collecting data from echocardiograms performed on the International Space Station to see if the heart loses muscle mass in space, and whether that contributes to this drop in blood pressure once they’re back on earth. They hope to predict changes in cardiovascular function in space and devise strategies to prevent them.
In a study reported by Dr. Thomas at the recent meeting of the American College of Cardiology, patients with cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart) were given echocardiograms to measure cardiac strain, said to be one of the best measures of cardiac function. (This is not strain in the psychological sense, but strain as a physical measure of the heart’s workload.) The data were obtained with equipment including a device similar to the old and now-outdated echocardiograph on the Space Station, and analyzed with customized software packages.
“This means that strain measurements made with one instrument can be compared with subsequent imaging on other machines, allowing much wider application of this promising technique, even with machines not specifically designed to measure strain,” says Dr. Thomas.
Armed with these strain maps the researchers have begun to develop mathematical models to define the heart’s response to weightlessness and several disease states.
“This work will also have impact on the care of patients on Earth, since our mathematical modeling will be applicable to all kinds of heart-related problems, such as heart failure and coronary artery disease,” says Dr. Thomas.