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Space, the current frontier

People might be surprised to find news about space and astronauts in these pages. What can be the link with brain health and aging? Turns out there is a lot of overlap and both fields can benefit from one another.

First, let me state from the outset that I have always been a space cadet. Childhood heroes of mine were Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun, much more than Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier (and at the risk of irritating legions of future fans, I am not in the Mario Lemieux camp). Just for that, participating in space research would be worth it!

Fast forward some decades, some opportunities allow me to indulge in both passions, space and the brain. As it turns out, human space research has amassed a trove of evidence that the space environment - due to microgravity and radiation, mainly, but also social isolation in long-term spaceflight - results in a host of deleterious effects on the human body. One major question remains, the effect of this environment on the most important, complicated and thus fragile human organ, the brain. It is becoming clear that maintaining an optimal brain health while engaged in long distance travel - a surface Moon mission, a trip to Mars - becomes critical to mission success.

Meanwhile, we also understand that some of the same conditions that affect astronauts - minus the radiation - occur frequently on Earth. For example, the average length of hospitalization after a hip replacement is eight days: time spent in bed, completely inactive. This has deleterious effects that mimic those experienced by astronauts in microgravity.

Hence our joining the concurrent efforts of multiple institutes of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Canadian Space Agency in a just-announced (but one year in the planning) bed rest study. In this experiment, 24 volunteers will spend 14 days in bed, with their head tilted back, while participating in numerous scientific experiments to measure the on-going effects of this forced inactivity. Further, half of them will engage in aerobic physical training (i.e. biking) as a counter-measure to alleviate potentially these effects.

Eight research teams across Canada will join their efforts in collecting and analyzing these data. We at MEDICS have been selected to look at the effects on brain health and the mitigating effect of physical training.

Stay tuned for more news this year as recruitment starts in March 2021 (COVID permitting).



Image copyright Canadian Space Agency / NASA


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