The health risks associated with space travel are coming under fresh scrutiny after Dutch neurologists published a report on astronauts' headaches and NASA commissioned research into space radiation risks.

The study by Leiden University Medical Center challenges the theory that "space headache" is predominantly caused by space motion sickness, and concludes that it is "a common and often isolated disabling complaint during spaceflight".

Of the 17 astronauts who completed the researchers' questionnaire, 12 had suffered at least one headache while in space. The afflicted astronauts reported a total of 21 headaches. According to research findings published by Cephalalgia, a publication of the International Headache Society, 16 of the 21 headaches "demonstrated no association with the main symptoms of space motion sickness, such as nausea, vomiting or vertigo". Such symptoms plagued crewmen of the Apollo 8 and 9 missions of 1968-9. During the Apollo 9 earth orbit mission, sickness forced astronaut Rusty Schweickart to postpone the first test of the Lunar Module in space.

Nine of the 21 headaches reported to the Leiden team were experienced during launch, nine during the stay at the space station, one during spacewalks and two during landing. Six headaches were classified as mild, 14 as moderate and one as severe. Two "fulfilled the criteria for a migraine attack".

The Cephalalgia report says that microgravity "might be considered as a plausible trigger" of space headache insofar as it is known to induce hypoxia, a condition of impaired oxygen supply to the blood.

NASA, meanwhile, has committed $28.4 million to research of carcinogenesis and central nervous system risks posed by space radiation during spaceflight. Investigation of space radiation's effects is covered by NASA's human research programme, the goals of which include "preservation of astronauts' health throughout their lives" and the development of "countermeasures for problems experienced during space travel".

The agency has selected research proposals submitted by four academic institutions: New York University School of Medicine, the University of Texas Medical Branch, California's Loma Linda University and Georgetown University in Washington DC.

Source: Flight International