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As humans prepare to venture deeper into outer space, including potential trips to Mars, researchers are hard at work trying to understand and mitigate the effects of low gravity and radiation on space travelers’ bodies.
“People think of technology as the limiting factor in space flight, but it’s not,” said Thomas Lang, PhD, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at UC San Francisco. “Human physiology is the limiting factor.”
Spaceflight seems to have a particularly notable effect on the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and immune systems. Many of the changes researchers are seeing as a result of spaceflight are similar to those seen in aging, though they happen much faster in space.
“We’re attuned to living in gravity,” Lang said.
As private aerospace companies and NASA are competing to be the first to land on Mars, UCSF researchers, and many others nationwide, are studying the effects of space travel – and trying to find ways to offset those impacts.
Bone Loss, Back Pain and Dried Plums
Since the first Apollo space flights in the 1960s and ’70s, the effects of space on muscles and bones has been apparent. After just eight days in orbit, the Apollo astronauts were so weak that they had to be pulled from their landing capsules.
In the following decades, astronauts, such as those on the International Space Station (ISS), began to exercise to keep their bones and muscles conditioned during their six-month stays. Still, many astronauts suffer back pain for years after returning to Earth.
To figure out why the back pain occurs after the exposure to low gravity, Jeffrey Lotz, PhD, the David Bradford Endowed Chair of Orthopedic Surgery at UCSF, recently studied the spines of astronauts after their time in space.
What he found surprised him.
He’d imagined that the back pain arose from disks swollen with water that would ordinarily get …