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NASA's Neurolab

Neurolab CrewThe Ultimate E-Ticket NASA invited ABILITY Magazine to the launch of Columbia's Neurolab mission. The day before the scheduled blast-off, we were treated to a tour and briefings of the many NASA programs. It quickly overwhelms- the scale of buildings, the size of the space vehicle, the tonnage and the millions of gallons of fuel required to accelerate this vessel into space jolts the senses. When the weather report came in it was 100% go, but one NASA official turned to another with a frown and whispered, "There'll be technical problems." There has never been a 100% on the weather report and superstitions and jinxes abound. So to some it was not a surprise when early the next day the launch mission was scrubbed because of a faulty network signal processor.

The launch was rescheduled for 2:19pm on the following day, April 18th. That day there was an element of surrealism at the Kennedy Center as the VIP Guest buses drove through the security gates to the closest lookout point on the base, 3 miles from Columbia. We arrived at a grassy beach with bleachers overlooking a lake, a great vista for the privileged few. Daniel S. Goldin, administrator of NASA, had said this would be a spiritual experience. The anticipation was growing - the haunting thoughts of the Challenger explosion seemed to be on people's minds, but was never mentioned. At zero count down the clouds and thunder of the ignited engines filled our senses. Seconds after the shuttle left the platform, the sound waves reached the bleachers, pounding into our chests in a firing rhythm. Standing next to Dan Goldin during the launch causes one to reflect on the emotions he must have felt as Columbia, with its seven- crew members, raced into space. The applause from the multitude, yells of "Yes," and the emotion surrounding the success all must have taken much of the weight off his shoulders. Some people cried. It was definitely an experience not to be forgotten. Everyone watching had some knowledge of what was taking place. Daniel Goldin was very informative about what we were viewing: as Columbia clearer the top of the launch pad tower, it was already going 120 mph. Two minutes later, when the solid boosters were jettisoned it was traveling 3,400 mph, the speed into orbit would reach 17,500 mph. And by the time we would get through the traffic and back to our hotels, 90 minutes later, Columbia would have traveled completely around the world!

Some day soon this will not seem so dramatic. One only has to go back to the first shuttle mission in 1983 to appreciate the advances already made. The technology will increase and space travel will be common place. Disney and the theme parks in Orlando can rest easier as the E-Ticket bandit becomes common. Even when that day comes, nothing can diminish the outstanding teamwork and dedication demonstrated by the NASA family.
Columbia's Neurolab is a joint venture with space agencies of Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the European Space Agency. It is carried out as a cooperative effort between NASA and seven United States research agencies: including the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Deafness, and other Communication Disorders, the National Institute on Aging, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, and the Office of Naval Research. In 1993, with the announcement of Neurolab, scientists from around the world submitted 172 proposals. NASA selected thirty-two. Six will take place aboard other orbiters, 26 on Neurolab.
The crew of Neurolab and a small army of rats, snails, crickets and fish were charged to substantially contribute to our understanding of how the nervous system develops and functions in space, as well as expand our knowledge of how this system works on earth. The twenty experiments have been organized into eight teams, each focusing on a particular area. The teams are: Adult Neuronal Plasticity Team, Mammalian Development Team, Aquatic Team, Neurobiology Team, Autonomic Nervous System Team, Sensory Motor Team and Performance Team, Vestibular Team, and Sleep Team. There is nothing unique about this scientific laboratory: the test equipment and the critter crew, until you consider the lab is hurtling through space, orbiting the earth 19 times in a 24 hour period. The spacelab will provide a laboratory nearly like one on earth, but with another significant difference: microgravity. With Neurolab, NASA has achieved a new plateau of scientific research, this time focusing on the nervous system, the most complex and least understood aspect of the human anatomy. The goals and objectives of the Neurolab mission were:
1) to use the unique environment of space flight to study fundamental neurobiological processes;
2) to increase the understanding of the mechanisms responsible for neurologic and behavioral changes that occur in space flight;
3) to further life science's goals in support of human space flight;
and 4) to apply results from space studies to the health, well-being, and economic benefits of people on Earth.

The flight of the Orbiting Vehicle Columbia, with Neurolab on board, began with an awe inspiring bang. The contributions of this splendid effort might be immediately obvious, or it could take years before the full scientific implications of this project unfold. Neurolab experiments have explored the remarkable potential of our nervous system to adapt to environmental conditions. We fully expect to be the long-term beneficiaries of emerging developments in the treatment of neuromuscular diseases, such as Muscular Dystrophy, and from sustained trauma to the muscles, nerves or spinal cord. Of all the systems of the human body, the nervous system is the most responsive to the local environment and it impressively recognizes and accommodates to change. In the new environment, void of gravity, the brain must relearn to do many tasks. It is able to relearn these tasks through the process of neuronal plasticity: an event in which neurons react to changed conditions by making new connections. How plasticity takes place is a key to understanding neuroscience and how balance, daily rhythms, such as our sleep cycles, and the control of movement without gravity. Movement is analyzed on board through a sensory motor response test conducted by Sensory Motor and Performance Team members Drs. Berthoz, Bock and Oman. A ball-catching experiment will provide data to create a better understanding and eventually lead to treatment for people with neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, basal ganglia disorders, and cerebellar deficiencies.

Human life systems have evolved in response to both gravity and a 24-hour cycle of day and night. Body temperature, heart rate and activity are expressed in this cycle. The benefits of experiments aboard Neurolab also include a fuller comprehension of the causes for imbalance and falling. New tests of the inner ear function, conducted by the Adult Neuronal Plasticity Team, are expected to lead to more effective procedures for patients with severe inner ear diseases.

EnginesOn two previous life science Spacelab research missions, Dr. Muriel Ross studied the changes that occurred in the gravity receptors located within the inner ear of the rat and found evidence of neuronal plasticity in the macula or specialized nerve cells. Macular receptors are responsible for our bodies' detection of "up" and "down," our sense of balance and our ability to detect motion. Dr. Ross concluded that neuronal plasticity was evidenced by the presence of an increased number of synapses, or connections among hair cells, to compensate for the now weightless receptors. Upon return to earth the additional connections made in space removed themselves. Further gravity sensors and vestibular changes will be tested and studied by the Mammalian Development Team, as well as the study of the development of the autonomic nervous system. The Aquatic Team will study the afferent and efferent responses of the oyster toadfish. The team headed by Dr. Highstein and Dr. Wiederhold will also study the development and formation of the gravity-sensing apparatus in fresh water snails. Sleep studies conducted aboard Neurolab may point the way to a better understanding of insomnia and other sleep disorders. Sleep is often difficult on a space shuttle flight, causing crew members to use sleep enhancers. The Sleep Team, headed by Dr. Charles Czeisler, will monitor sleep patterns before, during and after space flight, and test melatonin for its usefulness in flight . Also under further scrutiny is the evaluation of the effects of weightlessness on the cardiovascular system. Issues of orthostatic intolerance, the difficulty of maintaining blood flow to the brain, the control of blood pressure, and the goal of gaining a comprehensive understanding of the autonomic nervous system, are all pressing concerns on Earth. The flight of Neurolab is a key to a better understanding of disorders affecting millions Americans. America's space program has helped revolutionize the practice of medicine. NASA's research on the cardiovascular system is leading to many breakthrough discoveries, testing procedures and treatments. These are less painful, less costly, and less traumatic to patients. A few of today's space-derived improvements include blood pressure monitors, self-adjusting pacemakers, EKGs, exercise equipment and ultrasound images. The technology of tomorrow will include microwave surgery, tissue replacement, heart pumps, low radiation imaging, and fetal imaging. As NASA Administrator Dan Goldin indicated, "If the past is our guide, our future in space will continue to advance medical science."

It is impossible to leave the Space Center without a renewed regard for the entire space effort; it is clearly money well spent. Witnessing the flight of Neurolab was an inspirational and educational experience and we are anxious to learn more about NASA's further projects. When Dan Goldin was asked if he envisioned a person with a disability as an astronaut, he responded, " Today a person with a spinal-cord injury could not, because of the extreme physical demands of the escape mecanisms. During these flights, the risk factor is one in one-hundred. But soon the factor will be reduced to one in ten-thousand. And in the near future, it will be one in one-million, thereby opening the doors to space travel for everyone."


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