June 25, 1997

Pulmonary Function in Space

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Medicine, University of California San Diego, La Jolla.

JAMA. 1997;277(24):1957-1961. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03540480057039

The lung is exquisitely sensitive to gravity, and so it is of interest to know how its function is altered in the weightlessness of space. Studies on National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Spacelabs during the last 4 years have provided the first comprehensive data on the extensive changes in pulmonary function that occur in sustained microgravity. Measurements of pulmonary function were made on astronauts during space shuttle flights lasting 9 and 14 days and were compared with extensive ground-based measurements before and after the flights. Compared with preflight measurements, cardiac output increased by 18% during space flight, and stroke volume increased by 46%. Paradoxically, the increase in stroke volume occurred in the face of reductions in central venous pressure and circulating blood volume. Diffusing capacity increased by 28%, and the increase in the diffusing capacity of the alveolar membrane was unexpectedly large based on findings in normal gravity. The change in the alveolar membrane may reflect the effects of uniform filling of the pulmonary capillary bed. Distributions of blood flow and ventilation throughout the lung were more uniform in space, but some unevenness remained, indicating the importance of nongravitational factors. A surprising finding was that airway closing volume was approximately the same in microgravity and in normal gravity, emphasizing the importance of mechanical properties of the airways in determining whether they close. Residual volume was unexpectedly reduced by 18% in microgravity, possibly because of uniform alveolar expansion. The findings indicate that pulmonary function is greatly altered in microgravity, but none of the changes observed so far will apparently limit long-term space flight. In addition, the data help to clarify how gravity affects pulmonary function in the normal gravity environment on Earth.