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In space, no one can hear your red blood cells scream

There are many reasons why space is the final frontier, not least of which are the major health issues space travel places on the human body. So until a shady billionaire finds an alien protomolecule on a Saturnian moon and starts splicing it with human DNA so we can hang out in space all day without a spacesuit, we’re stuck with things like space anemia, a condition many astronauts develop after extended time in space.

Space anemia has been known for many years, but it was assumed that it developed as a reaction to microgravity and was a short-term phenomenon only – a temporary compensation as fluids and blood volume adjusted themselves. But as new research shows, that assumption seems to be wrong.

Astronaut Christina Koch performs maintenance on the International Space Station. Courtesy NASA

For the study, published in Nature Medicine, 13 astronauts who were in space for at least 120 days – long enough for all their red blood cells to have been produced in space – had their blood tested consistently. Before their flights, the astronauts created and destroyed 2 million red blood cells per second, but while they were in space, they destroyed 3 million cells per second. Notably, this process continued for the entire duration of the space flight. So, not a temporary reaction.

Consequently, 5 of the 13 astronauts developed anemia when they returned to Earth. (Interesting space fact: Having fewer blood cells isn’t a problem while you’re in space; the effects of anemia only manifest when the body returns to full gravity.) The anemia disappeared after a few months, but the astronauts were still destroying 30% more red blood cells a year after their spaceflight than they were before leaving Earth.

You may be thinking: Well, if they were destroying 50% more red blood cells while in space, how come they didn’t all develop severe anemia? The researchers theorized that production was boosted as well, which sounds like a good thing. The body is compensating, as it should. Unfortunately, that increased production stresses bone marrow function and the demand for energy spikes. That’s not such a good thing. And of course, many of the astronauts got anemia anyway.

To tackle the issue, the researchers emphasized the importance of feeding astronauts a proper diet, plus potential supplements before spaceflight. So don’t worry, Captain Kirk will be able to arm wrestle Klingons and romance suspiciously human-looking aliens without fear of keeling over from anemia-induced fatigue. Earth will stay safe.

Tell me with your eyes

Communication can be hard, even under the best of circumstances, but for many nonverbal patients in the intensive care unit who can’t move, getting a point across to the health care team can be a huge struggle in itself.

Health care professionals have been making do with eye-blinking or head-nodding, but what if that’s just not enough? New research shows that it’s not, and there’s a more effective way for patients to say what they mean just by looking.

BG Universitätsklinikum Bergmannsheil

In a study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, researchers looked into using eye-tracking systems for nonverbal ICU patients to communicate. Eye-tracking isn’t anything new, but using it as a form of communication among nonverbal patients with critical illness hasn’t been looked at before.

How does it work? The eye-tracking system is set up in the patient’s line of sight and its various algorithms and software collect data to calculate where exactly the patient is looking. Established scores and scales assess the patient’s mood, quality of life, pain, and self-esteem.

The researchers found that participating patients were actually experiencing more negative moods, pain, and feelings of frustration than was once believed. Making this tool even more valuable for treatment adjustment and meeting patients’ needs.

In this case, it means that health care providers are getting an eyeful … of communication.


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