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Original Investigation
April 2, 2020

Association of Long-Duration Spaceflight With Anterior and Posterior Ocular Structure Changes in Astronauts and Their Recovery

Author Affiliations
  • 1KBR, Houston, Texas
  • 2University of Houston College of Optometry, Houston, Texas
  • 3Coastal Eye Associates, Webster, Texas
  • 4Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham
  • 5Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York
  • 6MEI Technologies, Houston, Texas
  • 7Department of Systems, Populations and Leadership, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • 8Department of Diagnostic and Interventional Imaging, University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston
  • 9US Army, Moab, Utah
  • 10US Navy detailed to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
  • 11NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
JAMA Ophthalmol. 2020;138(5):553-559. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2020.0673
Key Points

Question  What ocular structure changes in astronauts are associated with long-duration spaceflight (6 months), and do the changes persist 1 year after returning to Earth?

Findings  This cohort study of 11 astronauts found that long-duration spaceflight was associated with optic disc edema and peripapillary choroidal thickening during spaceflight, with reduced axial length and anterior chamber depth after spaceflight, and with a hyperopic shift observed 1 year after returning to Earth.

Meaning  This study prospectively expands on previously reported retrospective findings that peripapillary optic disc edema and choroid thickening may not be specifically associated with particular individuals but may present bilaterally, may occur in both sexes, and may be associated with persistent abnormalities 1 year after returning to Earth.


Importance  During long-duration spaceflights, nearly all astronauts exhibit some change in ocular structure within the spectrum of spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome.

Objective  To quantitatively determine in a prospective study whether changes in ocular structures hypothesized to be associated with the development of spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome occur during 6-month missions on board the International Space Station (ISS).

Design, Setting, and Participants  The Ocular Health ISS Study of astronauts is a longitudinal prospective cohort study that uses objective quantitative imaging modalities. The present cohort study investigated the ocular structure of 11 astronauts before, during, and after a 6-month mission on board the ISS.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Changes in ocular structure (peripapillary edema, axial length, anterior chamber depth, and refraction) hypothesized to be associated with the development of spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome during 6-month missions on board the ISS were assessed. Statistical analyses were conducted from August 2018 to January 2019.

Results  Before launch, the 11 astronauts were a mean (SD) age of 45 (5) years, a mean (SD) height of 1.76 (0.05) m, and a mean (SD) weight of 75.3 (7.1) kg. Six astronauts did not have prior spaceflight experience, 3 had completed short-duration missions on board the Space Shuttle, and 2 had previous long-duration spaceflight missions on board the ISS. Their mean (SD) duration on board the ISS in the present study was 170 (19) days. Optic nerve head rim tissue and peripapillary choroidal thickness increased from preflight values during early spaceflight, with maximal change typically near the end of the mission (mean change in optic nerve head rim tissue thickness on flight day 150: 35.7 μm; 95% CI, 28.5-42.9 μm; P < .001; mean choroidal thickness change on flight day 150: 43 μm; 95% CI, 35-46 μm; P < .001). The mean postflight axial length of the eye decreased by 0.08 mm (95% CI, 0.10-0.07 mm; P < .001) compared with preflight measures, and this change persisted through the last examination (1 year after spaceflight: 0.05 mm; 95% CI, 0.07-0.03 mm; P < .001).

Conclusions and Relevance  This study found that spaceflight-associated peripapillary optic disc edema and choroid thickening were observed bilaterally and occurred in both sexes. In addition, this study documented substantial peripapillary choroid thickening during spaceflight, which has never been reported in a prospective study cohort population and which may be a contributing factor in spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome. Data collection on spaceflight missions longer than 6 months will help determine whether the duration of the mission is associated with exacerbating these observed changes in ocular structure or visual function.

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