NASA Twins Study: Body Changes Over Time in Space

NASA Twins Study: Body Changes Over Time in Space

NASA Twins Study: Body Changes Over Time in Space

From his eyes to his immune system, astronaut Scott Kelly's body sometimes reacted strangely to almost a year in orbit, at least compared to his Earth-bound identical twin - but newly published research shows nothing that would cancel even longer space treks, like to Mars. In that time, the brother's bodies - their genes, guts, immune systems, blood and brains - were part of an elaborate, multifaceted study created to teach us how spaceflight might affect human bodies.

Bailey participated in a teleconference with the Kelly brothers, reporters and fellow researchers on Thursday. The idea being that Mark, down on Earth, would provide a valuable control subject to compare with Scott as he spent a year in orbit. Throughout the flight, Scott self-administered sonograms of his carotid and brachial arteries, and he regularly monitored his blood pressure and collected urine and blood samples.

These findings ran counter to what Bailey thought might occur, and are confirmed in "The NASA Twins Study: A multi-dimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight", published in Science April 12.

While hundreds of humans have flown in space before, there is little data on how space flight longer than a few months impacts health and the body. That research mostly involves telomeres, the nucleic sequences at the end of chromosomes that protect them from damage the way a plastic aglet protects the tip of a shoelace.

After returning home, the telomere elongation was replaced by accelerated shortening and loss, a potentially negative effect for cellular health, they said.

"That's good news", added Gronostajski, who had no role in the study. Space flight also affects astronauts' eyes, causing what's now called space flight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome, characterized by swelling in the optic nerve head, among other symptoms.

"They're remarkable individuals", Bailey said. Not all of the changes disappeared-or at least not quickly-after Scott's return. Most of these gene expression changes (roughly 91.3 percent) reverted to baseline once he came back to Earth, but a small subset continued to exist for six months.

Dr. Andrew Feinberg, a Johns Hopkins University professor who was principal epigenomics investigator for the project, said "there wasn't anything that was any kind of red flag" in the findings, but that more study is needed. Nine months into the mission, they saw a 4% decrease in methylation of Scott's DNA compared to Mark's.

"It was encouraging to see that there was no massive disruption of the epigenome in either Mark or Scott", says Rizzardi.

The long-term health effects of long duration spaceflight are yet to be determined, but the TWINS Study represents a landmark step in humankind's journey to the moon, Mars and beyond...and to making science fiction science fact.

The Twins Study encompassed 10 separate research teams that thoroughly tracked the health and biology of both Scott in space and Mark on the ground.

Scott Kelly takes a selfie inside the International Space Station. His comment which prompted a lighthearted exchange between the brothers.

In the current study, Scott's biological samples were shipped back to Earth immediately, but in the future, astronauts may need to process and store samples on the spacecraft. "We think that microgravity has an effect on the bacteria", he said.

As an experiment both brothers were given a flu vaccine, which produced similar results.

Next, Kelly's DNA wasn't mutated in space but the activity of many of his genes - how they switch on and off - did change, especially in the last half of the voyage, which ended in March 2016.

Some of the researchers caution the study, by its nature, is limited in scope. Studies included molecular, physiological and behavioral measures, and for the first time ever in astronauts, "omics"-based studies".

"We're trying to determine if it is indeed something specific about space flight that is causing the changes we've seen", she explained. Scott's telomeres actually got bigger in space.

Those are just some of the lingering question that researchers will hope to answer in the future.

NASA already knew some of the toll of space travel, such as bone loss that requires exercise to counter. The integrated paper - encompassing work from 10 research teams - reveals some interesting, surprising and reassuring data about how one human body adapted to - and recovered from - the extreme environment of space.

But key results from the NASA Twins Study do confirm that prolonged space travel triggers stressors that can alter genes, send the immune system into overdrive, or hinder mental reasoning abilities and memory.

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