The Scoop: A Publication of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston

Produced by the Office of Communications // March 15, 2012

Study: Prolonged space travel causes brain, eye abnormalities

Dr. Larry Kramer

Dr. Larry Kramer

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study led by Dr. Larry Kramer, professor of diagnostic and interventional imaging, has revealed optical abnormalities in 27 astronauts who have spent prolonged periods of time in space. These changes are similar to those that occur in intracranial hypertension, a potentially serious condition in which pressure builds within the skull.

A retrospective analysis of the MRI data appeared online March 13 in the journal Radiology.

A team of researchers performed MRIs on the eyes and brains and analyzed the data on the 27 astronauts, each of whom were exposed to microgravity, or zero gravity, for an average of 108 days while on the International Space Station (ISS), a habitable research facility that has been orbiting the earth since 1998 and/or the Space Shuttle. Eight of the 27 astronauts underwent a second MRI exam after a second space mission that lasted an average of 39 days.

“The MRI findings revealed various combinations of abnormalities following both short- and long-term cumulative exposure to microgravity that we believe may be related to intracranial hypertension,” Kramer said. “The physiologic changes that occur during exposure to microgravity may help scientists to better understand the mechanisms responsible for intracranial hypertension in non-space traveling patients.”

Among astronauts with more than 30 days of cumulative lifetime exposure to microgravity, findings included optic nerve sheath distension (an expansion of the cells surrounding the optic nerve, which transmits visual information from the retina to the brain) in nine of the 27 (33 percent) astronauts; posterior globe flattening (a flattening of the rear of the eyeball) in six (22 percent); optic nerve protrusion (or bulging) in four (15 percent); and moderate concavity of the pituitary dome with posterior stalk deviation (a change in the pituitary gland and its connection to the brain) in three (11 percent) of the astronauts.

The same type of abnormalities are observed in idiopathic intracranial hypertension, a condition in which no cause can be found for increased pressure around the brain, resulting in a swelling of the cranial nerves and the optic disc, the juncture between the optic nerve and the eyeball.

Bone mineral loss and muscle atrophy are some of the known effects of zero gravity on astronauts. With the onset of longer excursions in space afforded by the ISS, visual changes have also been observed and are now being studied.

“Microgravity-induced intracranial hypertension represents a hypothetical risk factor and a potential limitation to long-duration space travel,” Kramer said.

Dr. William Tarver, chief of flight medicine clinic at NASA/Johnson Space Center, said the agency has noted transient changes in vision in some ISS astronauts, the etiology of which is not yet fully understood. No astronauts have been considered ineligible for space flight duties as a result of the findings, which he said are suspicious but not conclusive of intracranial hypertension.

“NASA has placed this problem high on its list of human risks, has initiated a comprehensive program to study its mechanisms and implications, and will continue to closely monitor the situation,” Tarver said.

The study is titled “Orbital and Intracranial Effects of Microgravity: Findings at 3-T MR Imaging.” Co-authors include Dr. Khader Hasan, associate professor of diagnostic and interventional imaging.

— Deborah Mann Lake, Office of Advancement, Media Relations

Post Comment

DaTscan now available for clinical use

Brain Night logo

Iodine-123 Ioflupane images. Normal scan, left, and Parkinson’s disease scan.

The section of Nuclear Medicine, Department of Diagnostic and Interventional Imaging is pleased to announce the addition of DaTscan (Dopamine Transporters scan) to the scope of its procedures.

DaTscan has been recently approved by the FDA for imaging to support the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The scan may be used to help differentiate different types of movement disorders from Parkinson’s disease as it is a robust and easy procedure to diagnose Parkinson disease with certainty.

A radiopharmaceutical Iodine-123 Ioflupane is used as an intravenous injection 4 hours prior to the scan. It concentrates in the basal ganglia in the brain of normal subjects but shows defective uptake in patients with Parkinson’s disease (see image). The scanning time is approximately 30 minutes using a routine nuclear medicine gamma camera.

The team of Nuclear Medicine physicians—headed by Dr. Isis Gayed, chief of nuclear medicine—and the movement disorder neurologists—headed by Dr. Mya Schiess, director of UT MOVE, director of Movement Disorders and Neurodegenerative Diseases Fellowship Program—are pleased with the performance and accuracy of DaTscan obtained for the initial 40 patients.

DaTscan can be ordered the week prior to the procedure and requires no preparation. Patients can be scheduled for DaTscan through the general scheduling phone number, 713.704.6500.

Post Comment

Medical School faculty shine at UT System conference

Dr. Jeffrey Spike, left, and Dr. John Byrne.

Dr. Jeffrey Spike, left, and Dr. John Byrne.

Two Medical School faculty members recently were recognized with top honors at the Innovations in Health Science Education conference in Austin by the UT System.

Dr. Jeffrey Spike, Samuel E. Karff Chair in the John P. McGovern, M.D. Center for Humanities and Ethics, received first place ($7,500) for his presentation “Interdisciplinary and Inter-professional Ethics,” and Dr. John Byrne, chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, won second place ($5,000) for his presentation, “Neuroscience Online.”

The UT System recognized just three outstanding projects or programs across the health institutions that demonstrate exceptional innovation and achievement in health science education.

“It is a great testament to the innovation and dedication of our faculty to be recognized at this level among our peers,” Dean Giuseppe Colasurdo said.

The awards were presented on Feb. 24 at the annual conference, which is hosted by The University of Texas Academy of Health Science Education, an organization of distinguished scholars recognized for their teaching excellence and commitment to the enhancement of health science education.

Established in 2005, the academy includes more than 100 faculty members from within the UT System.

“What makes members of our academy unique is that we educate individuals, health professionals, and others to take care of one another and to add to the body of knowledge—and these people do that in a very special way,” said Dr. Kenneth Shine, executive vice chancellor for health affairs. “I congratulate our newest members and wish them continued success as they continue to find new ways to innovate in education.”

Also at the conference, the academy named its new president-elect, Dr. Margaret Uthman, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and assistant dean for educational programs.

Post Comment

New MCAT emphasizes social, behavioral sciences

AAMC logo

Beginning in 2015, the new MCAT® exam will include a section on the psychological, social, and biological sciences foundational to the concepts new physicians will need to practice in a rapidly changing health care system.

“Being a good doctor is about more than scientific knowledge. It also requires an understanding of people,” said AAMC President and CEO Dr. Darrell Kirch.

Under the changes approved recently by the AAMC Board of Directors, the exam also will include updated science sections and a new section on critical analysis and reasoning skills that will require students to analyze information in passages from a wide range of social sciences and humanities disciplines, including ethics and philosophy, cross-cultural studies, and population health.


Post Comment

Health perspectives

Congressman Michael Burgess, left; Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo, president ad iterim of UTHealth and dean of the Medical School; and Congressman John Culberson participate in a Town Hall meting on the second anniversary of the Affordable Care Act March 14 at the Medical School.

Congressman Michael Burgess, left, Dean Giuseppe Colasurdo, and Congressman John Culberson participate in a Town Hall meeting on the second anniversary of the Affordable Care Act March 14 at the Medical School.

— Dwight C. Andrews, Office of Communications, Medical School






Read and post comments on our articles.


Receive Scoop and other Medical School publications.

Events to know

Proposals for Faculty Development Leave are due April 1 in the Office of Faculty Affairs, MSB G.420. Proposals can be submitted twice a year: April 1 and Nov. 1. The guidelines can be found here. For questions, call Faye Viola, 713.500.5101.

March 15

Brain Night for Kids.
The UTHealth Neuroscience Research Center is hosting Brain Night for Kids, which allows hundreds of children in the Houston community to learn more about the brain through interactive displays and booths. Invite your family and friends to this free event!
6–8 p.m., The Health Museum, 1515 Hermann Dr.

March 16

Match Day.
10:45 a.m., Webber Plaza.

March 19

Biochemistry Seminar Series: Dr. Vinzenz Unger (Northwestern University) presents, “When Structures Talk—Insights into the Mechanisms of Cellular Copper Uptake and Distribution.”
Noon–1 p.m., MSB 2.135.

Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology Seminar Series: Dr. Jeff Rosen (Baylor College of Medicine) presents, “Wnt/Fgf Interactions in Mammary Stem Cells and Breast Cancer.”
4–5 p.m., MSB 2.135.

March 21

Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences Grand Rounds: Drs. Melissa Allen and Bobby Nix, chief residents, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, present, “Toxic Leadership.”
Noon–1 p.m., HCPC Auditorium.

Family & Community Medicine Grand Rounds: Dr. Jair Soares, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, presents, “Bipolar Disorder.”
1–2 p.m., MSB 2.135.

March 22

MD Anderson Cancer Center Women Faculty Programs Kripke Legend Award: Dr. Nancy Hopkins (MIT) presents, “Engineering Equity for Women Faculty in Science and Engineering: The MIT Story.”
4 p.m., Onstead Auditorium, MD Anderson Cancer Center.

March 23

Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Alliance Grand Rounds: Dr. Barry Smith (Baylor) presents, “Maintenance of Certification PM&R: Where Are We Going?”
Noon–1 p.m., MSB B.605.

March 26

Biochemistry Seminar Series: Dr. Shao-Cong Sun (MD Anderson Cancer Center) presents, “Regulation of NF-kB Signaling and Immune Functions by Ubiquitination.”
Noon–1 p.m., MSB 2.135.

Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology Seminar Series: Dr. Robert Kass (Columbia University) presents, “Molecular Pharmacology of Cardiac Ion Channels: Disease-Associated Mutations and Patient-Specific Genetics.”
4–5 p.m., MSB 2.135.

March 27

Research Coordinator Forum: Madelene Ottosen, Department of Internal Medicine, presents, “Healthcare Quality and Safety.”
11:30 a.m.–1 p.m., MSB 2.135.
Lunch will be available for the first 50 attendees. Registration is not required.

March 28

Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences Grand Rounds: Dr. Elizabeth Truong, resident, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, presents, “Identifying and Managing Burnout during Residency.”
Noon–1 p.m., HCPC Auditorium.

Family & Community Medicine Grand Rounds: Dr. Rodney Acuna, PGY III, presents, “Case Presentation.”
1–2 p.m., MSB 2.135.

April 5

Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Seminar Series: Dr. Laurie Read (University at Buffalo, SUNY) presents, “Essential players in Trypanosome RNA editing.”
10:45 a.m., MSB 2.135.

April 12

Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Seminar Series: Dr. Dominique Missiakas (University of Chicago) presents, Staphylococcus aureus: Portrait of a pathogen.”
10:45 a.m., MSB 2.135.

April 15

Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Seminar Series: Dr. John Taylor (University of California, Berkeley) presents, “Population genomics, natural selection and adaptive evolution of fungi.”
10:45 a.m., MSB 2.135.

In Memoriam

Dr. Frank Yatsu

Dr. Frank Yatsu, 79, professor emeritus of neurology, died March 9, 2012. He joined the Medical School in 1982 as the second chair of the Department of Neurology and was celebrated at a retirement ceremony Jan. 14, 2011. A full obituary and information regarding services will be forthcoming in next week’s Scoop.

Scoop is a weekly electronic newsletter providing timely information to the Medical School.

Submit event items or news tips for Scoop by noon on Thursday preceding the week of publication in which you would like your event or news to appear (seven days in advance).

To submit content for Scoop, send an email to

To find out more information about advertising on Scoop, please read this PDF.

Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, M.D.

Darla Brown
Director of Communications

Carlos Gonzalez
Web Developer II