Spaceflight does some weird things to astronauts’ bodies

“The Twins Research gave us a primary sketch of the human physique’s molecular responses to spaceflight, however these outlines wanted to be crammed in,” says Christopher Mason, an affiliate professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medication. “The modifications we noticed wanted extra context and replication. We wanted extra research to map out the frequency of the modifications we noticed in different astronauts, and different organisms, that go into house, and in addition to see if the diploma of change was related for shorter missions.”

That brings us to a brand new bundle of analysis that builds on the Twins Research, reanalyzing among the authentic information with new methods and offering comparisons with different astronauts. In a set of 19 research revealed at present in a slew of various journals (together with 10 preprints nonetheless beneath peer evaluate), researchers like Mason (a senior writer on 14 of the papers) studied the physiological, biochemical, and genetic modifications that occurred in 56 astronauts (together with Kelly) who’ve hung out in house—the most important research of its type ever carried out. 

The brand new papers, which incorporate outcomes from cell-profiling and gene-sequencing methods which have turn into simpler to run solely just lately, reveal that “there are some options of spaceflight that constantly seem in people, mice, and different animals once they go to house,” says Mason. “There seems to be a core mammalian set of diversifications and responses to the trials of spaceflight.” 

The great, the unhealthy, and the inexplicable

The researchers spotlight six biological changes that happen in all astronauts throughout spaceflight: oxidative stress (an extreme accumulation of free radicals within the physique’s cells), DNA harm, dysfunction of the mitochondria, modifications in gene regulation, alterations within the size of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes, which shorten with age), and modifications within the intestine microbiome. 

Of those six modifications, the most important and most stunning one for scientists was mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria play a crucial function in producing the chemical power essential to preserve cells—and by extension, tissue and organs—purposeful. Researchers discovered irregular mitochondrial efficiency in dozens of astronauts and have been in a position to broadly characterize these modifications due to new genomics and proteomics methods. Afshin Beheshti, a bioinformatician at NASA and senior writer of one study, says mitochondrial suppression helps clarify how lots of the issues astronauts skilled (like immune system deficiencies, disrupted circadian rhythm, and organ issues) are literally holistically associated to one another, since all of them depend on the identical metabolic pathways.

“Whenever you’re in house, it’s not only one are or organ that’s affected, it’s the entire physique that’s affected,” says Beheshti. “We began connecting the dots.”

Different analysis homed in on issues noticed on the genetic degree. The Twins Research confirmed that Kelly’s telomeres obtained longer in house earlier than shrinking again to regular and even shorter lengths quickly after he returned to Earth. Telomeres are speculated to shorten with age, so lengthening makes little sense, and the Twins Research didn’t present sufficient information to immediate any actual conclusions as to why it occurred and what the results have been. 

Susan Bailey, a Colorado State College professional on telomere analysis and a senior writer for a number of of the papers, says the brand new analysis discovered that 10 different astronauts experienced the same telomere lengthening Kelly did no matter mission length—in addition to the identical telomere shrinking as soon as they got here again to Earth. 

Notably, one of many papers within the new bundle discovered that longer telomeres have been additionally related to climbers of Mount Everest. For Bailey and her colleagues, this implies that telomere lengthening is affected by oxidative stress—one thing that climbers and astronauts each expertise, and that disrupts correct telomere upkeep. 

Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide attracts blood from his vein on the ISS.


They’re nonetheless making an attempt to pinpoint how these pathways work and precisely what the implications may very well be (it’s probably not a secret to longevity), however “we now have a basis to construct on—we all know what to search for and pay attention to in future astronauts on long-duration [and deep space] exploration missions,” she says. 

Although among the modifications are sudden, many aren’t any trigger for concern. “What’s wonderful to me is how properly we adapt to house,” says Jeffrey Sutton, director of the Baylor Faculty of Medication’s Middle for House Medication, who was not concerned with the brand new analysis. Blood cell mutations decreased in Kelly while he was in space (a complete shock for Mason). Astronauts additionally exhibited decreased levels of biomarkers associated with aging and increased levels of microRNAs that regulate the vascular system’s response to radiation harm and microgravity. One of many strangest findings was that astronauts’ intestine microbiomes managed to deliver house microbes discovered on the ISS again to Earth.

“The research individually and collectively are really spectacular,” says Sutton. “We have now entered a brand new period of house biomedical analysis, the place the approaches and instruments of precision and translational medication are being utilized to advance our understanding of human adaptation to house.”

Lengthy-haul worries

Finally, nevertheless, the info highlights simply how a lot havoc and stress even the healthiest our bodies face throughout house missions—which ought to have an effect on planning for longer missions. “I don’t suppose we’re near sending untrained individuals into house for actually lengthy durations of time,” says Scott Kelly. 

Physiologically, he thinks it’s most likely protected to ship individuals to Mars and again. Within the distant future, nevertheless, “as an alternative of going to Mars, we’re going to be going to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn,” he says. “You’re going to be in house for years. And at that time, we’ll need to take a more in-depth take a look at synthetic gravity as a mitigation. I wouldn’t wish to be arriving on the floor of one other planetary physique and never be capable of operate. A yr or so is workable. A number of years most likely isn’t.”

scott kelly medical tests
Scott Kelly makes use of ultrasound to picture his jugular vein with assistance from Gennady Padalka, in an effort to consider the effectiveness of a decrease physique detrimental stress countermeasure used to reverse the headward fluid shift that happens within the weightlessness surroundings of house.


We’re nonetheless distant from having to judge these sorts of dangers. Mason and his colleagues counsel that there ought to be pharmacological methods for lowering the affect of gravity on the our bodies of returning astronauts. 

Sutton believes precision medicine may play an enormous function in tailoring these medication to guard astronauts towards the results of microgravity and radiation. And the shared organic responses between astronauts and Mount Everest climbers counsel that some interventions used to guard excessive sports activities athletes from oxidative stress may very well be utilized to astronauts too. 

What we want is extra information—and extra populations to make use of for comparability. Mason, Bailey, and their colleagues are starting to collect cell and gene profiles of more astronauts, particularly these occurring future year-long missions. Additionally they wish to research individuals who’ve skilled different circumstances related not directly to spaceflight, comparable to radiotherapy sufferers, pilots, and flight attendants. 

“The extra we all know in regards to the well being results of long-duration spaceflight, the higher ready we will probably be to assist preserve the well being and efficiency of astronauts throughout and after spaceflight,” says Bailey. “Such data advantages these of us on Earth as properly—we’re all involved about getting older, and being ill.” 

This put up has been up to date with feedback from Afshin Beheshti.

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