Rice University logoGeorge R. Brown School of Engineering
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Mike Orchard, Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), and Gene Frantz, ECE Professor in Practice, are the Rice PI and Co-PI, respectively, on a new grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science In Space (CASIS). The award will provide funds totaling $207,000 to a collaborative Rice/Baylor team within the next 18 months.

The project, titled “Longitudinal Assessment of Intracranial Pressure During Prolonged Spaceflight,” seeks to develop a basic approach to the detection of intracranial pressure and papilledema (optic disc swelling), conditions that can be caused by extended periods of time in space.

Frantz said, “This is an exploratory project to determine if it is possible to have astronauts monitor the health of their retinas and visual systems while in space. The thought behind this is that retina health appears to be an early indicator of adverse effects of microgravity on the human body.”

Microgravity is the state of free-fall around the earth that objects in space (and astronauts) experience. This is why objects in space appear to float – it’s a state commonly known as “zero gravity,” which is actually microgravity. Spending prolonged time in microgravity can cause a number of health issues for astronauts, and can affect bone, heart, and brain function. Ocular function is of great concern as well – some astronauts have experienced permanent visual impairment from long-term spaceflight.

Rice’s contribution will be to apply new techniques and technologies to image processing. This will lead to better images of the retina and optic nerve, which in turn will lead to better assessment of visual health. By providing dramatically enhanced, extracted, and processed images, coupled with the ability to see and analyze the retina and optic nerve in three dimensions, and comparing the images both by location and over time, they believe that the work will be a major breakthrough in ophthalmologic evaluation.

“If this is successful, it could provide early detection of adverse effects of microgravity on astronauts,” Frantz explained.

The work could point the way toward the development of countermeasures and mitigation of the effects of microgravity on ocular health.

The measurable goal is to demonstrate the capability of the newly-developed equipment on the space station, by the astronauts during flight. The team plans to deliver flight-ready retinal monitoring technology, evaluated in humans and primed for success in spaceflight. Once the equipment is ready and has been tested, it is ready for NASA consideration of trial in spaceflight.

The technology will have enormous benefits to the health of the earth-bound as well. The device may potentially be able to detect changes in the eye caused by diabetes, other optic nerve diseases, and even systemic hypertension (high blood pressure).

Orchard and Frantz will be working with Dr. Clifford Dasco, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Internal Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), who is PI on the project, and Dr. Richard Lewis, Professor of Ophthalmology, Medicine, Pediatrics, Molecular and Human Genetics.  In addition to Orchard and Frantz, Lantao Yu, a PhD student working with Dr. Orchard, and Ngoma Emeka, a Rice undergraduate student, will be contributing to the project.