At least, that was what the results of a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus suggest. After examining a group of test mice that spent two weeks in space aboard STS-135 – the final mission of NASA’s space shuttle program – they concluded that spending prolonged periods of time in space could in fact result liver damage.
For some time now, scientists have understood that exposure to zero-gravity or micro-gravity environments comes with its share of health effects. But so far, the research has been largely confined to other areas of the human body. Understanding the effects it has on internal organs and other aspects of one’s health are of extreme importance as NASA begins preparations for a crewed mission to Mars.
While the effects of long-term stays in space has been the subject of much scientific and medical study, the focus thus far has been on the effects to bone density and muscle mass. A good example of this was a 2001 study conducted by NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP), which researched the effects on an astronaut Scott Kelly’s body after he spent a year aboard the International Space Station.
A recent study has revealed that after spending 13.5 days in space, a series of mice experienced liver damage. Credit: Lculig/Dreamstime.com
The study reported that, “without gravity working on your body, your bones lose minerals, with density dropping at over 1% per month.” Similarly, a report by the Johnson Space Center – titled “Muscle Atrophy” – stated that “astronauts experience up to a 20 percent loss of muscle mass on spaceflights lasting five to 11 days.”
These and other studies have shown that exposure to zero-gravity or micro-gravity environments can take a toll on an astronaut’s body, their senses (i.e. visual acuity and hearing), as well as their vestibular (sense of balance and orientation) and cardiovascular systems. However, this most recent study was the first to examine the effect of spaceflight on the liver.
As Prof. Karen Jonscher – an associate professor of anesthesiology and a physicist at CU Anschutz, and the study’s lead author – explained in a university press release: “Prior to this study we really didn’t have much information on the impact of spaceflight on the liver. We knew that astronauts often returned with diabetes-like symptoms but they usually resolved quickly.”
Though temporary, these diabetes-like symptoms showed that there is a link between micro-gravity and metabolism. As the major organ of metabolism, it had been theorized that the liver could be a possible target of the space environment as well. However, until now, the question of whether or not the liver itself was effected remained an open one.
Atlantis lifts off on the last launch of the shuttle program, STS-135, on July 8, 2011. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
But after Jonscher …read more