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Positive visual phenomena in space: A scientific case and a safety issue in space travel.

Most astronauts on Apollo, Skylab, and MIR reported 'flashes of light' occurring in different shapes and apparently moving across the visual field, in the absence of auditory, somatosensory, or olfactory abnormal percepts. A temporal correlation with heavy nuclei or protons has been documented in space and comparable phosphenes were observed by volunteers whose eyes were exposed to accelerated heavy ions at intensities below the threshold for Cerenkov visible radiation. An interaction between heavy ions and the retina was suggested. However, the biophysics of heavy ions or protons action remains undefined, the effects on photoreceptors and neuroretina have not been differentiated, and some direct action on the visual cortex never ruled out. Phosphenes are common in migraine and are known to occur also in response to the electrical stimulation of ganglion cells (in retinas without photoreceptors), optic pathways or visual cortex, with mechanisms that bypass the chemically gated channels. Intrinsic photosensitive ganglion cells exist in the retina of teleost fish and mammals. In the hypothesis of a peculiar sensitivity to subatomic particles of the visual system, phosphenes due to the activation of processes by-passing the photoreceptors would raise questions about human safety in space. The issue is particularly relevant with experiments of increasing duration being now operative in the International Space Station (ISS) and with plans of space travel outside the geomagnetic shield. Research is in progress both in the ISS and on animal models, in the framework of the NASA/ESA actions to improve the astronauts' health in space.[1]

References

  1. Positive visual phenomena in space: A scientific case and a safety issue in space travel. Sannita, W.G., Narici, L., Picozza, P. Vision Res. (2006) [Pubmed]
 
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