Levine to speak about athletes, astronauts, altitude

By Robin Russell

As a youngster, Dr. Benjamin Levine dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Though he stayed earthbound, he has pursued a career every bit as challenging and perhaps even more fulfilling.

Dr. Benjamin Levine
Dr. Benjamin Levine

By merging his passion to understand how well the human heart can adapt with the study of the effects of extreme conditions, he now applies space-age science to a clinical cardiology practice.

Dr. Levine, founding Director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM), will discuss “Athletes, Astronauts and Altitude: The Limits to Human Performance,” in the next President’s Lecture Series at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 24, in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium.

Dr. Levine, Professor of Internal Medicine, worked for years with the U.S. Olympic Committee, researching sea-level and high-altitude training in runners and swimmers. His findings helped develop worldwide athletic training standards.

But he doesn’t work only with elite athletes. For the past 10 years, grants from the National Institutes of Health have enabled Dr. Levine to investigate the effects of aging and exercise training on the heart and blood vessels.

“When you train the heart you can make it bigger, more flexible and more compliant. In contrast, when you detrain, or age, the heart shrinks, atrophies and gets stiffer,” he said. “Some of it can be modified by physical exercise and training.”

As founding director of the IEEM, a collaboration between UT Southwestern and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, Dr. Levine runs the largest human physiology clinical research program in the country. The institute boasts nine faculty members, 16 postdoctoral researchers and 40 staff members. The 40,000-square-foot facility includes hyperbaric chambers and other equipment engineered for research on the effects of altitude, heat and exercise stress on the heart and blood vessels.

Dr. Levine is an expert on helping previously bedridden people, who experience an inability to stand for long without fainting, to learn how to exercise again.

Interestingly, the same fainting phenomenon happens to astronauts during space flight, said Dr. Levine, who is the cardiovascular team leader for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

He first worked on NASA projects while completing a cardiology fellowship. His mentors in the UT Southwestern Space Medicine Laboratory were the late Dr. C. Gunnar Blomqvist, a cardiologist internationally renowned for his expertise on cardiovascular adaptations to space flight, and Dr. Jere Mitchell, Professor of Internal Medicine and Physiology.

NASA has funded Dr. Levine’s research on the effects of long duration space flight on the cardiovascular system since the early 1990s. Because of that work, he was tapped to help develop protocols in October 2010 to safely extract Chilean miners who were trapped underground for more than two months.

“Prolonged confinement in a small space brings similar concerns, whether someone is in space or underground,” Dr. Levine said. After such confinement, individuals can experience fainting and a potentially devastating loss of blood to the brain. Bringing up the miners safely required careful preparation.

The rescue capsule needed to be wide enough for the miners to cross their legs and squeeze their thighs and buttocks together to push blood back up to their hearts. The men also wore compression stockings and were trained to cough along the way if they got lightheaded, in order to force blood to the brain.

“If they had fainted, they would have died,” Dr. Levine said.

With the entire world watching, all 33 men made it out safely.

Dr. Levine also has helped with rescue efforts in the high altitudes of Nepal and Alaska.  Just before coming to UT Southwestern for his cardiology fellowship, he studied high altitude sickness in Japan. He’s kept the adventure alive, saying UT Southwestern gives him the freedom to work on projects around the world.

“Nobody here tries to micromanage you as an investigator,” Dr. Levine said. “You’re given a tremendous amount of latitude if you’ve got a good idea and the commitment to pursue it.”

Dr. Levine joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 1990. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and completed his residency in medicine at Stanford University. He also received a fellowship in environmental physiology at Shinshu University School of Medicine in Japan.   

The President’s Lecture Series was established in 2005 as a means for faculty members or senior administrators to share their work with the entire campus community. The one-hour lectures are offered several times each academic year and feature a discussion in everyday language on the basics of research and clinical programs, along with the broad implications of those programs for health and medicine. Each talk is followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to visit informally with the speaker.

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Dr. Levine holds the Distinguished Professorship in Exercise Sciences.

Dr. Mitchell holds the S. Roger and Carolyn P. Horchow Chair in Cardiac Research.