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Study targets fainting astronauts

February 4, 2010

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SFU kinesiologist Andrew Blaber was among the researchers waiting at the Edwards Air Force Base in California last September when the space shuttle Discovery landed, carrying astronauts returning from the International Space Station.

He is one of a group of Canadian scientists who are studying data collected from tests on the astronauts to better understand so-called ‘fainting astronaut’ syndrome. About 80 per cent of astronauts who stay for an extended period at the space station will experience dizziness or fainting spells after returning to Earth. Moments after watching the shuttle land, Blaber, in charge of the back-up team, collected critical blood pressure and blood flow readings from astronaut Tim Kopra, who spent 58 days in space. Similar data was gathered on the astronaut prior to and during flight.

"There is still much we are trying to learn about how long durations in space affect the human body," says Blaber. He has also worked with data from U.S. astronauts Clay Anderson, who spent five months in space in 2007 and Robert Thirsk, who returned to Earth Dec.1 last year after six months aboard the space station.

Researchers are tracking the effects of long-duration space flight on crew members’ heart functions and the blood vessels that supply the brain.

"We hope to produce countermeasures that enable astronauts to maintain sufficient blood pressure after their long duration missions, and improve the safety of future astronauts."

Blaber is also hopeful that their work will have medical applications for elderly people who experience fainting spells that can lead to falls.

The University of Waterloo is leading the study in collaboration with NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and a team of other university researchers.

Since 2007, astronauts from a number of missions have participated in experiments in space to further the study.

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