There are currently 6 crew members on the International Space Station and at the moment they’re not only watching over us from above and tweeting amazing images of our magnificent planet, they are mostly working hard on their missions to help future studies and researches. From growing plants in space to checking if all their gear is functional to even cleaning up after the spacewalk, they have constant duties.
One of the most important parts of their “into-space” mission is the fact that they help scientists on earth learn about the effects lack of gravity has on the human body. It is well known that in just a few days into space bone density and muscle mass suffer some amounts of damage, which can lead to similar dystrophic syndromes that some people on earth might encounter.
Before going into space astronauts have to go through a series of training that prepares their bodies, but they need to continue their training and exercising in space to be able to come back to earth and not encounter a lack of movement due to muscular atrophy. Still, training and exercises are not enough and currently studies are being made on ways to prevent and even cure beforehand these muscle changes and all these findings will ultimately help people on earth who suffer from the same condition, but genetically or neurologically.
Another study, named the Korrektsiya Experiment focuses on the changes space flights have on bone density and mass to be able to determine if the effects are reversible or if they can, at least, be recovered. As biochemical markers of the bone metabolism are currently being analyzed from blood samples taken from the ISS crew we can only hope it can shed some light on better prevention of osteoporosis, osteomalacia or other disorders that lead to bone destruction.A more recent study, proposed by doctors from the University of Ottawa, Canada, has set its goal on the bone marrow. Apparently, the microgravity from ISS affects the bone marrow the same way prolonged bed rest and aging do here on earth.
The bone marrow has colonies of stem cells that have the ability to become any normal or abnormal cell based on what biochemical markers make them become. The bone marrow specializes in developing these stem cells into red and white blood cells that are very important for the nutrition and oxygenation of our body cells as well as the protection against infections and abnormal cells.
Prolonged bed rest or some hematological diseases, as well as aging, is related to stem cells becoming fat cells or even bone cells, with no use for the bone marrow thus reducing is functionality and becoming the source of anemia or low functioning immune systems. Because many astronauts face “space anemia” researchers started to consider further studies.
Anemia due to the lack of red cell production is a cause of fatigue, decreased cognitive abilities and poor heart function. As for the decreased number of white cells it is involved with a predisposition to infectious diseases and even developing abnormal cells like cancer cells. As astronauts are exposed to higher levels of radiation, white cells become even more important in fighting against abnormal changes that might occur. Also, low development of platelets can lead to bleeding and the impossibility of forming proper blood cloths.
Apparently, spending time in space results in the production of fat cells in the bone marrow and by actually studying what causes stem cells to take this fast course to “aging” might lead to important discoveries. If doctors manage to determine how these mechanisms are induced, not only astronauts, but people from earth might benefit from better prevention or treatment for this type of bone marrow diseases. The important part of this particular bone marrow study is if the fat accumulation in the bone marrow is being reversed while astronauts return to earth and if so why? This particular finding can help people suffering from bone marrow destruction due to fat accumulation here on earth and also might benefits astronauts as preventive measures could be developed so they don’t have to go through its effects while they land on Earth or Mars or other planets.
More importantly, space exploration isn’t only about space, it also gives more potential to discover how some changes that occur in the human body can be reversed, helping not only those who are exposed to microgravity, but also those of us who suffer from paralytic diseases or moving impairments here on Earth.