Spaceflight May Have an Immediate and Frightening Effect on Our Bodies

Thursday, 12 May 2016 - 1:36PM
Thursday, 12 May 2016 - 1:36PM
Spaceflight May Have an Immediate and Frightening Effect on Our Bodies
Scott Kelly just returned from his Year in Space, and with his astronaut twin brother Mark serving as a control group in a new study, we're only just starting to learn about the long-term effects of spaceflight on the human body. But as it turns out, we might need to worry about short-term space travel as well, since in a slightly alarming new study, scientists found that mice showed signs of nascent liver damage in only two weeks.

Over the last few years, there have been studies on the effects of spaceflight on the human body, but they have primarily focused on bone, muscle, brain and cardiovascular function. The research on organ function (other than the brain) has been sparing, but since astronauts have shown signs of changes in liver function, researchers at the University of Colorado specifically studied the livers of mice after a short spaceflight:

Opening quote
"Prior to this study we really didn't have much information on the impact of spaceflight on the liver," lead author Karen Jonscher, an associate professor of anesthesiology and physicist at CU Anschutz, said in a statement. "We knew that astronauts often returned with diabetes-like symptoms, but they usually resolved quickly."
Closing quote

For this study, researchers studied mice that spent 13.5 days on the Atlantis space shuttle. When they returned, scientists were able to take liver samples, and found that the mice were showing early signs of liver damage. This is likely the result of the microgravity environment, which has been shown to have a deleterious effect on animals' metabolisms.
Opening quote
"We saw the beginning of nascent liver damage in just 13.5 days," said Jonscher. "The mice also lost lean muscle mass. We have seen this same phenomenon in humans on bedrest – muscles atrophy and proteins break down into amino acids. The question is, how does that affect your liver?"
Closing quote

Although further study is needed to see whether similar effects occur in humans, this study is concerning. It's somewhat expected that there would be healthy risks during long-term spaceflight, during a trip to Mars or the Moon for example, but if similar effects are seen in humans, then there may be a more immediate concern for astronauts who are in space for only a few weeks.

Opening quote
"It generally takes a long time, months to years, to induce fibrosis in mice, even when eating an unhealthy diet," said Jonscher. "If a mouse is showing nascent signs of fibrosis without a change in diet after 13.5 days, what is happening to the humans?"
Closing quote

But to be fair, while this study is somewhat discouraging, there isn't necessarily a problem. Not only is there a question of whether the same effects would be found in human astronauts, there's a chance that the body of both mice and humans could adjust to the microgravity environment and prevent permanent damage.

Opening quote
"Whether or not this is a problem is an open question," said Jonscher. "We need to look at mice involved in longer duration space flight to see if there are compensatory mechanisms that come into play that might protect them from serious damage."
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Science
Space

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