Jan. 30, 2018 — Human travel to Mars may have once seemed merely subject matter for “The Twilight Zone,” but to NASA and private companies like SpaceX alike, it’s a reality the rest of us will watch unfold on TV within the next couple of decades.
Alumnus and neuroradiologist Michael Antonucci, M.D. ’05, examines changes in astronauts’ brains after prolonged space travel. He says the research findings, recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, are only the beginning of a long voyage, but they suggest major shifts in astronauts’ brain anatomy that must be addressed in the development of safe space travel.
Using brain MRIs collected by NASA before and after shorter and longer missions, Antonucci and his colleagues found the brains of returned astronauts rotated up in the skull, narrowing the space between the two. The volume of fluid in brain ventricles increased, and the optic nerves stretched. The longer an astronaut was in space, the more pronounced the changes appeared. Antonucci’s team hypothesized a correlation between their findings and visual impairment intracranial pressure (VIIP) syndrome, a condition characterized by poor vision, increased pressure inside the skull and swelling of the optic disk in the eyes.
“As neuroradiologists, we looked at these cases as if they were patients of ours. We did a global assessment of pre- and post-flight imaging and found all these small but significant changes,” he says. “As we plan for longer space missions, these are things to consider. On the way to Mars, astronauts will be millions of miles from Earth for a prolonged time. These astronauts are at the peak of human performance when they’re sent to space but then have significant changes that could impact the way they perform.”
Antonucci says he had no idea he’d be conducting research like this upon beginning a career at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston nearly four years ago, but when he learned of a colleague’s work for NASA, he jumped on board. As an assistant professor of radiology, he teaches medical students, residents and fellows and participates in multidisciplinary conferences, interpreting neuroimaging of brain tumors and stroke.
“I enjoy looking at patient images with students, residents or fellows to figure out a problem and show them how the things they learn — anatomy, pathology — come to play in the real world,” he says. “And working with other specialties on teams with a common goal is an opportunity for everyone to share their unique skills. We all learn from each other to determine optimal patient care.”
Antonucci completed medical school, three years of neurosurgical training and a diagnostic radiology residency at the UF College of Medicine before a fellowship in neuroradiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He says his interest in the brain was spurred during his first year of medical training after learning of neuroanatomy.
“The education I got at UF — both at medical school and my residency programs — was incredible. I was there for 11 years of training, and I still use what I learned every day,” he says. “Having the McKnight Brain Institute there is really a benefit to patients and those who study and work there. Who knew it would lead to me reading astronauts’ MRIs?”
He says his teaching style has been shaped by UF educators and mentors like Walter Drane, M.D., and Patricia Abbitt, M.D., professors in the UF department of radiology.
Abbitt remembers Antonucci as a conscientious resident, committed to precision.
“When he first started learning to interpret CT scans, he was worried that his work would not be perfect,” she says. “He worked on one scan for hours to get it ‘just right.’ After several days of working with him at a rate of one to two scans a day, I told him, ‘Mike, you have to be like the Gators — pick up the pace a bit and start ‘two-a-days,’ which refers to two practices a day. He just looked at me and laughed.”
From Abbitt, Antonucci learned the power of language.
“She can teach complex findings in a way everyone understands,” he says. “I’ve always thought so fondly of her, and I’ve had many other mentors over the years.”
When Antonucci contemplates the future these days, he finds himself to be a lot more grounded, due in part to his growing family of four.
“If you asked me 10 years ago if would I go into space, I would’ve said absolutely,” he says. “Now I have two little girls. It would still be an amazing opportunity, but given what I’ve seen, I would rather go on a short mission compared to a long one. That is, until we figure out how to protect the brain in space.”