- Press Release
- March 29, 2023
Artificial Gravity Partially Protects Space-Related Central Nervous System Deficits in Organisms
Space travel to the Moon, Mars, and beyond can expose astronauts to extreme conditions, causing potential health issues. To prepare for future long-duration missions, a team of scientists from NASA and Universities Space Research Association studied how the effects of space – like changes in gravity, radiation, and more – impact “model organisms,” or other kinds of life that are biologically similar to humans. New findings from a study using fruit flies on the International Space Station suggest that space travel has an impact on the central nervous system, but that artificial gravity provides partial protection against those changes. The findings were published in Cell Reports.
“Microgravity poses risks to the central nervous system, suggesting that countermeasures may be needed for long-duration space travel,” said Dr. Janani Iyer, a Universities Space Research Association (USRA) project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and a co-author on the paper published in Cell Reports. “As we venture back to the Moon and on to Mars, reducing the harmful effects of microgravity will be key to keeping future explorers safe. This study is a step in the right direction to explore the protective effects of artificial gravity in space and to understand the adaptation to Earth conditions after returning from space.”
Fruit flies are the ideal organism for this kind of research due to their similarities to humans. There’s a significant amount of overlap between the cellular and molecular processes of flies and humans. Almost 75% of the genes that cause disease in humans are shared by fruit flies, meaning the more we learn about fruit flies, the more information scientists have to investigate how the space environment may impact human health. Flies also have much shorter lifespans – about two months and reproduce in two weeks.
The three weeks the flies spend in space is equivalent to about three decades of a human’s life, giving scientists more biological information in a shorter time span. In this study, scientists sent flies to the space station on a mission in a newly developed piece of hardware called the Multi-use Variable-gravity Platform (MVP), capable of housing flies at different gravity levels.
After the flies returned to Earth, onboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, the flies were brought back to Ames for further analysis. Upon arrival, scientists at Ames worked around the clock for two days to sort the flies and perform behavioral and biochemical tests.
This study was one of the first of its kind to take an integrated approach to how the space environment impacts the nervous system. Scientists looked at the fly behavior by observing movement of flies as they moved about in their habitat, changes at the cellular level in the fly brain, how gene expression modifications impact the nervous system, and more.
The results from this study suggest that spaceflight causes stress in the fly’s cells that lead to negative behavioral and neurological impacts, as well as changes in gene expression in the fly brain. However, using artificial gravity can provide temporary relief to the difficulties that microgravity in space causes on the nervous system of a fruit fly, even if there are still long-term health complications.
“With the upcoming long-duration deep space missions, where astronauts will be exposed to varying levels of gravity, it is imperative that we understand the impacts of altered gravity on the neurological function,” said Dr. Siddhita Mhatre, a KBR Wyle senior scientist at Ames and a co-author of the published paper. “If we can use artificial gravity to delay space-related deficits, maybe we can extend the future mission timelines. And flies in space, alongside the astronauts, will help to further our efforts in keeping astronauts healthy.”
Additional Resources: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2022.111279
Founded in 1969, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. Government, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), is a nonprofit corporation chartered to advance space-related science, technology and engineering. USRA operates scientific institutes and facilities and conducts other major research and educational programs. USRA engages the university community and employs in-house scientific leadership, innovative research and development, and project management expertise. More information about USRA is available at www.usra.edu.
Suraiya Farukhi, Ph.D.