A group of researchers studying the medical effects of space discovered a remarkable fact: spaceflight physically halted the accumulation of poisonous proteins that normally build-up over years in muscles as the age.
Their research continued investigations of the physical affect on life first undertaken in the late 1960s.
When evidence emerged during the Gemini and Apollo missions that longer spaceflights might be physically debilitating, research was ramped up to determine what effects long stretches of weightlessness could have on the human body.
In the decades that followed, bone and muscle mass studies revealed that the longer the space mission, the more loss of bone and muscle tissue. Some theorized if space travelers were away from Earth for long enough periods, they may never be able to return to the planet without risking death—or the possibility of living the remainder of their lives as semi-invalids.
Findings of the impact the zero-gravity environment has on humans didn't look promising. Over time, the body adapts to weightlessness and even daily, strenuous exercise was proven not enough to offset the effects of space. Bone and muscle mass diminished and were absorbed by the body and up to one-fifth of the blood volume disappeared. Not as much is needed in space to maintain proper blood pressure. Other deleterious effects were also noted during physicals of astronauts returning from Skylab missions, extended shuttle missions and the International Space Station flights.
Yet now an international team of researchers from England, France, Japan, the United States, and Canada participating in a project named ICE-FIRST have determined that spaceflight may have some previously unknown beneficial qualities after all, including the ability to significantly extend lifespans.
Their paper, "Genes down-regulated in spaceflight are involved in the control of longevity in Caenorhabditis elegans," appears in the journal Nature.
Microscopic worms (C. elegans) used in the experiment have been used in the past because many of the 20,000 genes studied are the same or similar to those found in humans that are associated with muscle and bone cells.
Upon return to Earth, the team discovered that many of the genes were expressed at lower levels after exposed to the space environment. Transfering that lower expression to worms that remained on Earth resulted in those worms living longer.
Speaking about the findings with Futurity, team member Dr. Nathaniel Szewczyk of the University of Nottingham, England, said, "Well, most of us know that muscle tends to shrink in space. These latest results suggest that this is almost certainly an adaptive response rather than a pathological one. Counter-intuitively, muscle in space may age better than on Earth. It may also be that spaceflight slows the process of aging.”
research on worms exposed to space as long ago as 2004 is commencing and a human has been added to the research project. Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers, an astraonaut that holds the title of longest European in space, will be studied to determine the long term effect the lower expression of genes has on his body.
That study, also being conducted by the University of Nottingham, will be conducted by Professor Marco Narici and focus on zero-gravity spaceflight's effect on human muscle tissue.
The studies may shed additional light on innovative approaches for life-extension bio-technology applications.
A brief video about the research can be viewed here.