Time in space is bad for the bones. Professor NS’s research can help humans on Earth

For two decades, Tamara Franz Odendaal has been studying how space travel affects the human skeleton.

Due to the lack of gravity in space, astronauts suffer from bone loss when they return to Earth.

“We always think of it as just the scaffolding that keeps the body together, but it’s a really dynamic tissue,” said Franz Odendaal, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University.

Using a device known as a stochastic positioning machine, which simulates microgravity experiences on Earth, Franz Odendaal is conducting a two-year research project to better understand how bones respond to zero gravity. The research has implications for improving the treatment of bone disorders, such as osteoporosis.

Franz Odendahl’s research uses zebrafish that are placed on a platform and then randomly rotated to try to simulate zero gravity.

A device used for scientific research appears on the table.
This device, known as a random positioning machine, is used to simulate the lack of gravity in space. (Submitted by Tamara Franz Odendaal)

Zebrafish are commonly used as a model organism in developmental biology and “actually as a model for a lot of human diseases because the cell types are very similar, and that applies to the skeleton as well,” she said.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques knows firsthand about bone loss after space missions. He spoke to CBC News from CSA headquarters in Longueuil, Que. Saint-Jacques is headed to the International Space Station on a 204-day mission starting in late 2018.

A Canadian astronaut wears his uniform before departing for the International Space Station in late 2018.
Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques, a member of the main crew of the mission to the International Space Station, draws attention before the launch of the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft in Kazakhstan on December 3, 2018. (Dmitry Lovetsky/The Associated Press)

People may imagine astronauts walking triumphantly upon their return to Earth, but that is not the reality.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said, “because you might think it’s like riding a bike. ‘Hey, I’m going to be an Earthling again.'” No, adjusting to gravity is harder than adjusting to space, even though this is the first time that “There it is, and evolution did not prepare us for that.”

Pictures of his return in 2019 show him being carried by others.

Three men help a Canadian astronaut exit a space capsule after returning to Earth.
Ground personnel help Saint-Jacques exit a Soyuz MS-11 capsule shortly after it landed in a remote area outside Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, June 25, 2019. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

He lost his sense of balance during the mission and was prone to fainting because space changes how blood flows.

In space, blood flows evenly to different parts of the body due to the absence of gravity. On Earth, more of it has to go to the brain, but proper blood flow doesn’t return right away.

“Ideal laboratory mice for medical research”

Saint-Jacques, who was a doctor before becoming an astronaut, said the changes astronauts undergo to their bodies in space make them ideal to study for medical research.

“It happens very quickly and in young people who are in perfect condition,” he said. “We’re, like, the perfect lab rats for medical research.”

These changes are also easier to study because astronauts do not have other medical conditions, unlike an elderly person who may have several health problems, Saint-Jacques says.

Saint-Jacques said astronauts get a lot of exercise while in space.

Ground personnel carry David Saint-Jacques from the Canadian Space Agency shortly after he landed in a remote area outside Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on June 25, 2019.
Ground staff carry Saint-Jacques after he returns to Earth. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

“If we’re not careful, because nothing weighs anything, you’re not using your bones as much,” he said. “So, if you’re not careful, you’ll get very weak. That’s why we do a lot of exercises in space.”

Despite the exercise, the astronauts struggle to adapt to life on Earth. He said it took several months for him to return to normal and be able to resume hobbies such as playing basketball and skiing.

“I’ve been on (Earth) all my life, and so have all my ancestors. They should come back like this,” he said.

“That’s not how it works.”

(Tags for translation) Space

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