Major Tim Peake is to carry out a UK-designed test to check for problems suffered by astronauts caused by increased brain pressure during his mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The British astronaut, who is due to blast off today from Kazakhstan for his six-month trip to Earth's orbit, will trial the system created at Southampton General Hospital to test for space-related visual problems & sickness.
Dr Robert Marchbanks has developed the device at the Hampshire hospital known as the cerebral & cochlear fluid pressure (CCFP) analyser.
It can detect life-threatening head injuries & infections without the need for surgery or painful spinal procedures & is currently part of a major study which could see it rolled out across the NHS.
Dr Marchbanks has moreover been working with Nasa & the UK Space Agency to enable the test to be used on board the ISS.
He said: "Many astronauts suffer from visual disturbances which do not always subside when they return to earth & various tests on these astronauts post-mission have revealed they had raised pressure in their heads.
"Nasa suspect this is due to a redistribution of bodily fluids towards the head & away from the feet in the absence of gravity.
"However, Nasa feel this may only be part of the cause, hence the need for the experiment aboard the ISS.
"They don't yet know if the time spent in space makes a huge difference to this yet believe it might, which means long space missions would be most affected & that would threaten the long-term goal of reaching Mars due to the risk of deteriorating eyesight & impaired brain function."
The CCFP technique, which involves a patient wearing headphones with an ear plug linked to a computer, enables doctors to measure fluid pressure in the skull – known as intracranial pressure (ICP) – via a channel which links the inner ear with the brain.
As fluids in the ear & brain are connected, a alter in pressure in the brain is reflected by a corresponding alter in the ear – which can signal the need for intervention due to swelling of the brain which prevents blood flow & deprives the organ of the oxygen it needs to function.
Currently, ICP can only be measured by drilling a hole through the skull to implant a pressure probe into the brain in theatre or a lumbar puncture, where a needle in the back under local anaesthetic is used to penetrate to the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord.
Dr Marchbanks said: "Nasa want to measure the pressure inside an astronaut's head while they are in space, yet the normal way to measure this is through a lumbar puncture which cannot be risked in space because there would be no medical back-up if it went wrong.
"As a result, they have searched the globe for effective methods of measuring intracranial pressure safely & have chosen the best of those methods to trial, which includes our CCFP analyser."
Major Peake, who served as a pilot & flight commander in the British Army & now represents the European Space Agency, will become the first British-funded astronaut to live & work on the ISS.
He is due to launch into space at 11.03am (GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, alongside crew members Tim Kopra of Nasa & Yuri Malenchenko of Roscosmos for the six-month mission, which will see them carry out a variety of experiments & tests for researchers.
Volunteers aged between 20 & 80 are wanted for the Southampton test to provide a range of healthy pressure levels. For information visit: www.uhs.nhs.uk/icpstudy.