June 16th, 2024

Effects of stress on astronauts key aspect of new U of L study

By Ry Clarke - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on December 21, 2022.

A new study being led by a team at the University of Lethbridge with neuroscientist Dr. Gerlinde Metz is examining what stress does to the human body in space, with results helping unlock clues to how we can help mitigate the effects of similar stressors on non-astronauts.

Analyzing 335 blood samples from astronauts before, during, and after space missions, Metz and an interdisciplinary team investigate the data to see what factors are at play.

“We are all really thrilled to be working on this,” said Metz. “This is an international effort where the Japanese, and the European space agencies contribute. They are sending participants into a simulated trip to Mars, and we also got samples from them. It is a great combination, because there is no other lab in the world that has samples from these different cohorts. Because the Mars-500 study is simulated, it includes a zero gravity and radiation piece that we have when astronauts really go into space to the ISS. We can compare the different types of stressors that people are exposed to differently.”

Working with NASA, the study has collected blood samples from male and female astronauts during four- to six-month missions to the International Space Station between 2006 and 2018. Samples were analyzed by NASA and shared with the U of L for metabolomics analysis by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which provides a highly accurate picture of the state of the body at the time the samples were taken.

“This is the first paper out of a series. NASA is sending us more samples now, more data, because they have seen the outcome of this study and it’s been very inspiring,” said Metz. “We have seen that the different types of stressors will affect the metabolic function in the body and that is important because the mechanism is happening and every one of our cells, in every organ, gets a profile of what is happening inside the body. It is a concern to understand what health complications astronauts are facing, and how we could potentially intervene and address these. We need to understand the mechanism of why astronauts develop certain health conditions and what is going on inside the body. The blood is a window to look into these pathways that lead to disease.”

The study is also working to understand the health effects of space travel, informing development for when human missions to Mars take place in the late 2030s or early 2040s. “Because this is a very severe stress, going into space, and staying on the ISS over 180 days will affect their metabolism,” said Metz. “Astronauts go through severe muscle and bone loss in space and zero gravity conditions. They also have radiation, it is much higher than what we experience on Earth. They have a potentially higher risk of cancer.”

Working with teams out of Moscow, the international project will see how being isolated for longer periods of time will affect metabolic rates.

“Space travel, and activities on the ISS are explicitly exempt from the war and violent actions on Earth,” said Metz, who explained that despite the war in Ukraine the work of science goes on. “It is very important because the ISS needs to keep running, if Russia withdraws from their efforts, from spaceflight, a big partner would be missing. So they have made an explicit commitment to keep their activities going. It is an international effort, there are many different countries involved in this experiment. They are keeping it protected so that it can move forward without any disruption.”

With testing showing new insights into how stress effects the body, the study will go out of this world for results.

“We are protecting astronauts that are doing such an incredible job out there. Doing research and studying so many aspects of science up there in space, it is good to know that they are not left alone there,” said Metz.

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