The Antwerp University Research centre for Equilibrium and Aerospace (AUREA in short) is embedded in the ENT Department of the Antwerp University Hospital (UZA), as well as in the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Antwerp. This underlies the multidisciplinarity of this research group. Deficits of the vestibular system are key, wheter they originate from a specific pathology such as vestibular migraine or Meniere's disease or whether they are evoked by weightlessness in space. On request of the physician, several investigations can be conducted to test the vestibular function. To name a few: elektronystagmography, video-oculoscopy, ocular VEMP, cervical VEMP, unilateral centrifugation, ... Since 2 years there is a weekly vertigo consultation led by ENT-surgeon dr. Vincent Van Rompaey & Prof. Floris Wuyts.
In short, the aims of AUREA are:
- to conduct fundamental scientific research about the function of the vestibular system;
- to acquire novel insights into the different pathologies of the vestibular system;
- to assist in state-of-the-art clinical investigations in vestibular patients;
- to develop and optimize new diagnostic techniques for vestibular patients;
- to conduct research concerning desorientation in astronauts and pilots;
- to improve the quality of life in vestibular patients.
Symbiosis and a multidisciplinary approach lead to translational research
Since two decades, researchers with different backgrounds (e.g. Physics, Biomedical Sciences, Medicine, Physical Therapy, Engineering) have been conducting translational research about the different aspects of the vestibular system. By doing so, state-of-the-art methods are being tested and finetuned.
ENT-surgeons base their diagnosis on the results from the techniques develloped by the 'basic scientists' and this results in an upward spiral. Sharing this mutual expertise and state-of-the-art techniques lead to advancements within the vestibular field and make AUREA one of the top research laboratoria when it comes to the vestibular system.
Astronauts and patients
The past few years, AUREA has intensively collaborated with several international research groups from the USA, UK, The Netherlands, France, Germany, Russia, Australia, Canada, ... As an example: AUREA is part of or leading on several projects for the American, European or Russian space agencies (respectively NASA, ESA and Roscosmos). This shows the need for vestibular research as part of astronautics. 80% of the astronauts in weightlessness develops space motion sickness as a consequence of a disruption within the vestibular system.
In the meantime, more than 26 cosmonauts have been tested by the AUREA team in their lab in Star City (close to Moscow) before and after 6 months of spaceflight in the ISS. This is a unique number. Also Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne and the Dutch astronaut André Kuipers were already tested on a specific rotating chair; By doing so, the impact of weightlessness on the vestibular system is investigated, which leads to fundamental insight into the function of the vestibular organ. By acquiring this knowledge, specific countermeasures can be developed to minimize space motion sickness in astronauts. In addition, patients also gain as this knowledge can also lead to the development of new methods for clinical use.
Another research project for ESA investigates the effect of medication on the vestibular system and autonomic function. The different aspects of the vestibular system are being tested, as well as different parameters from the cardiovascular and respiratory system whilst doing a tilt test. By doing so, the connection between the vestibular and the autonomic system can be investigated. The goal of this is to gain insight into the relation between orthostatic intolerance and the vestibular system. This could also help in making a more adequate diagnosis in certain vestibular patients, as well as help astronauts as most of them suffer from orthostatic intolerence when they return back to Earth.
In a third ESA-project, the impact of spaceflight on brain plasticity is investigated by means of advances MRI-techniques. For this project, there is also a tight collaboration between experts from several national and international universities. The main goals of this project is to gain insight in how precisely the brain adapts to new and challenging environments (e.g. space). This will also lead to a better insight into why some vestibular patients compensate after a lesion and why some don't. The preliminary results from this project are fascinating, but also very innovative because this is the first time a project like this is being conducted on human space travellers.