Current research areas include:
Astronauts in space experience deconditioning effects caused by the absence of Earth's gravity. Such effects include loss of bone density; reduced circulating blood volume; decreased muscle strength, endurance, vision impairment, and sensory-motor function (i.e. balance); and reductions in aerobic capacity. USRA scientists use ground-based analogs to test possible countermeasures such as nutrition, pharmacotherapeutics, and exercise, as efficient and cost-effective trials prior to using techniques in space.
Adaptive changes in the central nervous system during spaceflight are reflected by the oculomotor and perceptual disturbances experienced in-flight, as well as by perceptual and motor coordination problems experienced post-flight. Research is focused on developing field tests of sensorimotor function and rehabilitative countermeasures that can be self-administered during exploration missions. This technology development is also funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and DoD for assessment of balance disorders in other clinical and military populations, e.g., from mild traumatic brain injury.
Faced with evidence of vitamin deficiencies dating back to the days of Columbus' expedition, USRA scientists are working to determine nutrition requirements to maintain astronaut health for extended-duration spaceflight and are developing nutritional countermeasures to prevent or minimize the negative effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. Collaborative projects include two ongoing flight research studies and several ground-based projects with universities across the U.S. and around the world. These NIH-funded projects include how nutritional status is related to elderly self-neglect and Antarctic studies of vitamin D.
Outside of the Earth's protective atmosphere, astronauts may be exposed to high energy charged particles of galactic cosmic rays and solar particle events (SPE), as well as secondary protons and neutrons. Current research focuses on the increased risk of cancers; changes in motor function and behavior or neurological disorders; other degenerative tissue defects, such as cataracts, circulatory diseases, and digestive diseases; and acute radiation risks, such as prodromal risks, significant skin injury, or death from a major solar event or combination solar/galactic cosmic ray event that jeopardizes crew and mission survival.
Astronauts are not immune to common ailments, such as motion sickness, headache, sleep disturbances, backache, and nasal congestion during spaceflight. USRA scientists in pharmacology are conducting research to improve crew health and well-being by identifying safe and effective pharmaceutical preparations, therapeutic procedures, and countermeasure strategies. Current efforts include testing of new medication combinations to treat motion sickness and investigation of radiation effects on the enzymes that metabolize administered drugs.