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Revolutionary Southampton brain pressure test to be used by British astronaut

A revolutionary brain pressure test developed by doctors in Southampton is set to be used in space by UK astronaut Major Tim Peake, who will blast-off on his mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday 15 December.

Known as the cerebral and cochlear fluid pressure (CCFP) analyser, it can detect life-threatening head injuries and infections without the need for surgery or painful spinal procedures and is currently part of a major study at Southampton General Hospital that could see it rolled out across the NHS.

In addition to trialling the system in a hospital, Dr Robert Marchbanks, who pioneered the device, has been working with NASA and the UK Space Agency to find out if it can help to tackle space-related visual problems and sickness in astronauts – a project known as Fluid Shifts.

“Many astronauts suffer from visual disturbances which do not always subside when they return to earth and various tests on these astronauts post-mission have revealed they had raised pressure in their heads,” explained Dr Marchbanks, a consultant clinical scientist at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.

“NASA suspect this is due to a redistribution of bodily fluids towards the head and away from the feet in the absence of gravity. However, NASA feel this may only be part of the cause, hence the need for the experiment aboard the ISS.

“They don't yet know if the time spent in space makes a big difference to this but believe it might, which means long space missions would be most affected and that would threaten the long-term goal of reaching Mars due to the risk of deteriorating eyesight and impaired brain function.”

The CCFP technique, which involves a patient wearing headphones with an ear plug linked to a computer, enables doctors to measure fluid pressure in the skull – known as intracranial pressure (ICP) – via a channel which links the inner ear with the brain.

As fluids in the ear and brain are connected, a change in pressure in the brain is reflected by a corresponding change in the ear – which can signal the need for intervention due to swelling of the brain which prevents blood flow and deprives the organ of the oxygen it needs to function.

Currently, ICP can only be measured by drilling a hole through the skull to implant a pressure probe into the brain in theatre or a lumbar puncture, where a needle in the back under local anaesthetic is used to penetrate to the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord.

“As part of the Fluid Shifts project, NASA want to measure the pressure inside an astronaut's head while they are in space, but the normal way to measure this is through a lumbar puncture which cannot be risked in space because there would be no medical back-up if it went wrong,” said Dr Marchbanks.

“As a result, they have searched the globe for effective methods of measuring intracranial pressure safely and have chosen the best of those methods to trial, which includes our CCFP analyser.”

Major Peake, who served as a pilot and flight commander in the British Army and now represents the European Space Agency, will become the first British-funded astronaut to live and work on the ISS.

He will launch into space at 11.03am (GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan alongside crew members Tim Kopra of NASA and Yuri Malenchenko of Roscosmos for the six-month mission, which will see them carry out a variety of experiments and tests for researchers – while also inspiring a generation of children and young people to engage in science.

Dr Marchbanks added: “NASA are doing a great deal to develop and assess methods of measuring intracranial pressure safely and, in terms of our work in healthcare, it is a huge boost to the field to have them addressing essentially the same challenge as clinicians.

“This is an extremely exciting time for us and demonstrates what an influence Southampton has had on a major development in science and technology.”

Dr Marchbanks and his colleague Dr Tony Birch, head of neurological physics at the University of Southampton and co-lead of the Southampton CCFP study, hope their link with the space mission will also help boost the numbers involved in their research project.

“In addition to our work in space, it is vital we continue to move forward with our NHS study and ensure we get enough people signed up to test the equipment in Southampton,” said Dr Birch.

“We are still looking for healthy volunteers aged between 20 and 80 years to come forward and spare two hours of their time to enable us to identify a normal range of pressures before we can use the headset with patients on a wider scale.”

For more information on the study – funded by Innovate UK and supported by the UK Space Agency and UKTI – or to register, contact the research team on 023 8120 3370 or 023 8120 3713, email icpstudy@uhs.nhs.uk or visit www.uhs.nhs.uk/icpstudy




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