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Why Venturing too Far from Earth could be Hazardous to Human Health

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Why Venturing too Far from Earth could be Hazardous to Human Health

Human expeditions to asteroids and Mars are potentially looming on the horizon, with programs such as Mars One even looking to establish a permanent human colony on the red planet. With the potential for long-term human space travel and habitation, researchers are working to understand the potential effects of remaining in regions with little-to-no gravity for extended periods of time.


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Now, new research shows that spaceflight may be associated with a process of accelerated aging of the immune system. The team of reaserchers used a ground-based model called hindlimb unloading (HU), which simulates some of the effects of spaceflight on mice.

In the study groups of three mice were suspended for three, six, 13 and 21 days – and killed after each test – to test the effects of microgravity. The scientists analysed bone parameters and the frequency of cells that will give birth to B lymphocytes in the bone marrow of young mice, old mice and mice subjected to three weeks of HU.

French scientists have been testing the effects of microgravity on Earth. They found that long-duration missions, such as to Mars (illustration shown), could affect the immune system. Superficially, prolonged microgravity caused mice to experience changes also observed in elderly mice

French scientists have been testing the effects of microgravity on Earth. They found that long-duration missions, such as to Mars (illustration shown), could affect the immune system. Superficially, prolonged microgravity caused mice to experience changes also observed in elderly mice


They found that mice in low gravity conditions experience changes in B lymphocyte production in their bone marrow similar to those observed in elderly mice living in Earth conditions. The same effects could be present in humans.

“This study shows that a model of spaceflight conditions could not only be used to test the efficacy of molecules to improve immune responses following a spaceflight in astronauts, but also in the elderly and bed-ridden populations on Earth,” Jean-Pol Frippiat, a researcher from Lorraine University in Vandoeuvre-lès-Nancy, France, said in a statement.

Frippiat, a member of the university’s Stress, Immunity and Pathogens Laboratory, added that the new model “could also help understanding the aging of the immune system,” also known as immunoscenescence.

This recent study isn’t the first of its kind to suggest a relationship between spaceflight and negative immune system effects. In August 2014, NASA released results from two collaborative investigations that looked at changes in the immune systems of 28 crew members from the International Space Station. The research found that, during spaceflight, the immune systems of crew members were “confused” — some cell functions were more depressed than normal, while other cell activity was heightened. The problem rested with the lowered function:

When cell activity is depressed, the immune system is not generating appropriate responses to threats. This may also lead to the asymptomatic viral shedding observed in some crew members, which means latent, or dormant, viruses in the body reawaken, but without symptoms of illness. When activity heightens, the immune system reacts excessively, resulting in things like increased allergy symptoms and persistent rashes, which have been reported by some crew members.

“Things like radiation, microbes, stress, microgravity, altered sleep cycles and isolation could all have an effect on crew member immune systems,” said Brian Crucian, a NASA immunology expert. “If this situation persisted for longer deep space missions, it could possibly increase risk of infection, hypersensitivity, or autoimmune issues for exploration astronauts.”

Both the FASEB and NASA studies, however, came to similar conclusions with what to do with the data: prepare. We need to develop molecules and compounds to improve immune responses following spaceflight in astronauts or in elderly and bed-ridden populations.

“Getting to Mars and beyond promises to be a huge task, requiring contributions from almost every scientific discipline,” said Gerald Weissmann, Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal.

“For biologists and medical researchers, knowing how altered gravity affect our immune system from challenges aloft can be already be studied on Earth. Fortunately for biologists, it’s not rocket science,” he said.

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Science Journal: http://goo.gl/yl5rQs.

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