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article imageNASA’s twins study explores long-term life in space

By Tim Sandle     Apr 15, 2019 in Science
How effectively can be survive and thrive in space? Does long exposure to micro-gravity affect our mental and physical capabilities? To understand this, NASA has completed a fascinating study on twins.
Over the course of many years, NASA have been studying the physiological and cognitive differences between astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly, as the New York Times reports. The aim of the NASA research was to evaluate the effects of extended spaceflight on the human body. Of the two, Scott Kelly spent a year in space (340 days on board the International Space Station) and Mark Kelly remained on Earth.
There was a huge volume of data to sort and analyse, given the range of parameters collected. Samples were taken of Scott and Mark Kelly’s weight, vital signs, plus samples of blood, urine and feces, to enable cross-comparisons to be made. Given that the two are identical twins, the cross-matching of the data allowed for an ideal test subject versus control subject experiment.
Data set
The data analysed was formed of: physiological, telomeric, transcriptomic, epigenetic, proteomic, metabolomic, immune, microbiomic, cardiovascular, vision-related, and cognitive information.
One important finding was that spending a year in space altered Scott Kelly’s body. However, most of these changes were only temporary and disappeared after spending some time back on Earth.
The exceptions were some noticeable damage to Scott Kelly’s DNA, together with some sign of cognitive decline, as assessed by tests on Scott’s mental performance. With the DNA, this related to the length of telomeres, a factor that is important for maintaining dividing cells and which is probably related to human aging.
Another difference was that Scott Kelly’s immune system produced a host of new signals and his microbiome gained new species of bacteria. The full impact of some of these differences is still to be evaluated and contextualized. Did the fall in Scott Kelly’s cognitive test scores relate to him feeling unwell, for example, or are they related to the effects of being in space on the human body?
Scott’s life on the space station saw him exposed to higher levels of radiation than he would ever experience on Earth, plus continual weightlessness. Add to this a very different type of diet and regular disruptions to sleep. These are atypical conditions for most people but indicative of what astronauts will need to cope with should long-term space missions, such as a voyage to Mars, happen.
The type of information collected can be used to help with astronaut training and for putting nay additional measures in place to help protect the body and mind when a person is in space. Additional measures are certainly necessary should an astronaut travel to and then land on Mars – there’s little value going all that way if the crew are too weak once they step out onto the red dust of the Martian surface.
Overall the findings are positive, according to Professor Christopher Mason (Weill Cornell Medicine), who spoke with The Verge. Mason states: “The really dramatic response of the human body in flight is only matched by how quickly it reverted back to the preflight stage when it got back to Earth.”
The academic adds: “Scott really showed one of the best examples of human plasticity and adaptability that we’ve ever seen.”
The research into Scott and Mark Kelly has been published in the journal Science. The research paper is titled “The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight.”
More about Space, NASA, Twins, Mars, Physiology
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