New research suggests that space radiation may cause bone loss in astronauts.
Bone Loss in Space
While it’s important to have astronauts in space for both research and exploration, it turns out that there may be a number of negative side effects from living in space for an extended period of time. New research, published in PLOS ONE and reported on by ZME Science, suggests that astronauts living on the International Space Station may experience both bone and muscle loss due to microgravity and space radiation. This new knowledge has important implications, as it may change how NASA engineers approach the issues surrounding extended trips in outer space. Upcoming deep-space missions such as a manned trip to Mars will rely on finding solutions to problems such as the fact that this space radiation may increase bone loss.
Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University, led by Henry Donahue, studied mice who were restricted in a simulation of microgravity. Another group of mice was allowed to roam freely while exposed to radiation similar to that encountered in space.
In a recent statement, Donahue revealed the results of the experiment.
“Radiation plus microgravity amplifies the negative effect of microgravity on bone, but does not affect muscle loss…It’s as if exposure to radiation itself doesn’t affect bone, but it makes it more sensitive to the negative effects of microgravity.”
The research team says that the loss of bone muscle in astronauts is similar to that found in older people. The fact that extended stints in space may contribute to premature aging has been noted in the past, and this most recent research adds to the body of knowledge confirming that fact. Knowledge learned from further study of the effects of microgravity on astronauts may produce breakthroughs that help us here on earth with a growing older population.
This is, unfortunately, another setback for manned spaceflight. With companies like SpaceX setting their sights on Mars, a spaceflight with humans aboard may be inadvisable if these damaging effects aren’t addressed. Scientists at the University of California, Irvine, have also previously discovered that mice exposed to space radiation deal with cognitive decline due to a change in the structure of nerve cells and synapses.
As mentioned above, the effects of weightlessness may also have a negative effect on astronauts. Research shows that only a few weeks in space can cause significant muscle and bone loss, as well as issues with vision by literally affecting the shape and structure of the eyeball. Other less noticeable damages include lengthening telomeres and even turning genes on and off.
The combination of physical and mental decline from extended time in space is an unfortunate hurdle that researchers will have significant trouble in overcoming. If a breakthrough is to be made, however, the implications both on Earth and in spaceflight will be immense. Avoiding premature aging in space as well as addressing the concerns of growing old here on Earth will greatly increase the quality of life both for astronauts and the general population.