Danish research collaboration with NASA

New research into the normal pressure on astronauts’ brains when they are in weightless conditions will provide knowledge and opportunities for new medical treatment for patients with water on the brain (hydrocephalus).
What happens when gravity disappears? What are the effects on astronauts of floating weightless in space?  And how can the answers to such questions be used to treat patients on Earth?  

Lonnie Grove Petersen, physician and PhD at the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen knows the answer. She has just been granted DKK 3.8 million by the Novo Nordisk Fonden. Working with researchers from NASA at the University of California and Johnson Space Center, Lonnie Grove Petersen will look for ways of regulating brain pressure for both astronauts in space and patients on Earth. Experiments start in May 2016 and will primarily be conducted with NASA. Clinical trials will be carried out at Rigshospitalet. 

Lonnie Grove Petersen talked about the project
“We hope to be able to deliver a direct space-medicine-to-patient spin-off. Patients with high pressure on the brain demonstrate many of the same symptoms as astronauts in space: headaches, nausea, reduced sight and accumulation of fluid at the back of the eyes. 

Astronauts also say that more blood flows to the brain when they are weightless. This is confirmed through direct measurements of pressure on the brain in individual astronauts. A possible cause is redistribution of blood during weightlessness. This leads to increased central blood-fill and possibly also blood-fill in the head, which is likely to give a small, but lasting increase in pressure on the brain, and disturb the normal fluid dynamics of the brain. 

The problem with high pressure on the brain is challenging clinically because we lack knowledge about the mechanisms regulating the pressure. We need data and new knowledge about the normal and pathophysiological relationship between the distribution of the blood volume and pressure on the brain. Once we have this knowledge we’ll be able to introduce new, non-invasive methods to regulate brain pressure for astronauts in space and patients on Earth.” 

“Pressure temperature” is a challenge 
We can all get water on the brain (hydrocephalus). The disease can be congenital, it can arise as a complication with another diseases, e.g. meningitis, brain haemorrhage, tumours or as the result of a road accident or if the head is knocked or hit in some other way.  

Professor Marianne Juhler MD from the neurosurgery clinic is extremely interested in the brain, pressure regulation and fluid transport, both clinically and in a research context.  

“The problem is that we don’t know the normal pressure in the brain in the same way as we know the normal temperatures, normal blood pressure and normal blood counts. This is because we can’t simply take the “pressure temperature of the brain” to find out what’s normal. Pressure is dynamic; it even varies over the course of a single day and depending on whether we are lying horizontally, standing up, sneezing, running, or walking. So “the pressure temperature” is a constant challenge.” 

Life-long symptoms treatment 
Treatment of hydrocephalus is basically treating the symptoms and ‘the same’ as it has been for the past 50 years. We reduce the pressure through a life-saving drain by leading spinal fluid away from the brain to be absorbed in the abdominal cavity or the heart. However, many patients have to undergo many re-operations because, for various reasons, the drain partly or fully stops working and because it works differently from patient to patient. Therefore, new data and new knowledge about the normal pressure in the brain is vital so that we can offer better, gentler treatment for patients on Earth.  

by ​Lisbeth Westergaard

Responsible editor