Research reaches new heights with NASA grant

Subjects in low-pressure chamber
Research at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine includes investigations into how the body’s heart and brain are affected by long-duration space exposure.

By Lisa Warshaw

How space flight affects the human heart has long been a focused research area for medical scientists at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM), a joint venture between UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

The IEEM’s team’s efforts of the have expanded beyond the health of the human heart and are now looking at other areas affected by long-duration space exposure, which as Institute Director Dr. Benjamin Levine points out, is also valuable knowledge in improving life on Earth.

Institute members like Dr. Justin Lawley are working to identify other potential problems in human health during space exploration.

“Currently my work revolves around examining if elevated pressure inside the brain is the cause of altered vision in astronauts,” said Dr. Lawley, a postdoctoral research fellow.

Dr. Lawley, a native of the United Kingdom, is one of the 2013 recipients of the prestigious First Award Fellowship from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSRBI). The two-year fellowship will enable Dr. Lawley to conduct biomedical research with the aim of helping to protect the neurological health of astronauts during extended duration spaceflights.

“The fellowship provides funding for young scientists such as me to conduct cutting-edge research in a world-class laboratory,” Dr. Lawley said. “It also gives me the opportunity to interact and learn from some of the best space scientists in the world.”

As a First Award recipient, Dr. Lawley will also have the opportunity to attend the Summer Bioastronautics Institute at NSRBI’s headquarters and participate in scientific demonstrations in laboratories housed within the Consolidated Research Facility in Houston.

At UT Southwestern, Dr. Lawley is collaborating with Dr. Louis “Tony” Whitworth, Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery and Radiation Oncology. Dr. Whitworth’s expertise will allow Dr. Levine and his team to measure pressure inside the brain during experiments to simulate microgravity.

The NSRBI is a NASA-funded consortium that currently has two grants with the IEEM. Dr. Levine is the leader for the cardiovascular alterations team.

For years, NASA has been a key funding source for Dr. Levine, a Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern. Under his direction, IEEM researchers have studied the effects of long duration space exploration on the human heart during five shuttle missions and two stints on the International Space Station (ISS).

“We just completed the largest cardiovascular research study to take place in an International Space Station,” Dr. Levine said. “Thirteen crew members were studied over a 10-year span, to address alternations in cardiac structure and function and how these changes affected the risk of cardiac rhythm problems.”

The aim was to quantify the extent, time course, and clinical significance of cardiac atrophy associated with long-duration spaceflight.


Dr. Levine holds the Distinguished Professorship in Exercise Sciences