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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A technique developed to help astronauts stave off problems with their blood vessels in zero gravity may become an important tool in helping prevent strokes among the estimated 50 million Americans who have high blood pressure.

The technique, which involves placing the patient's lower body in a vacuum, would let doctors know which of their patients with high blood pressure could suffer a stroke if their blood pressure is lowered too much with medication, said Dr. John Absher, assistant professor of neurology at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

"People with high blood pressure have hardening of the arteries, and when your arteries get hard, too much of a drop in blood pressure can produce problems," Absher said.

Absher presented the results of his small-scale study involving 10 patients today at a meeting of the Space and Underwater Research Group of the World Federation of Neurology. The meeting is being coordinated by the Stroke Research Center at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

In space, astronauts spend time wearing special pants hooked up to a vacuum that lowers the pressure around their legs. This pulls blood to their legs, mimicking the effect of gravity and preventing "vascular deconditioning," Absher said.

By adapting this technique, doctors could determine at what blood pressure a patient might be a risk of stroke or "silent stroke" -- a gradual loss of adequate blood flow to the brain that can go unnoticed.

Doctors have long known about the problem, Absher said, "but no one has had a way to test it."

In his study, Absher sealed off the lower bodies of patients with high blood pressure in a plastic drum and then used a vacuum to lower the pressure inside the drum. This lowers blood pressure in the brain by pooling blood in the legs. During this process Absher

Contact: Robert Conn
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center

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