Astronaut experiment for spine health

A space medicine research programme could help develop treatments for spinal postural deconditioning, according to a UK-based team.

Professor Nick Caplan and his team at Northumbria University, UK, are recreating the conditions of reduced gravity faced by astronauts, to see whether daily exposure to artificial gravity can prevent spinal problems.

The experiment will take place in Cologne, Germany, where 24 participants will spend 60 days in bed, continuously lying in a tilted position, head down. This should mimic the way astronauts’ bodies decondition due to reduced gravity. Muscles become weaker and bones become thinner.

However, in this study, the participants will spend 30 minutes per day being exposed to artificial gravity using a ‘short arm centrifuge’ which spins them and simulates the normal gravitational conditions when standing up on Earth. The team will examine whether this device can prevent spinal problems.

After the 60 days, the team are also testing a rehabilitation device called the Functional Re-adaptive Exercise Device, which is similar to a customised gym cross trainer. Participants will use it for a few weeks after the bedrest stage.

Professor Caplan says: “The bedrest study is providing an ideal platform for us to determine how suitable our device is for use in the rehabilitation of astronauts when they have spent time aboard the International Space Station in microgravity.

“We will be using advanced neurophysiological and medical imaging techniques to understand how the spinal postural muscles adapt to simulated microgravity and determine the effectiveness of a rehabilitation programme designed for use not just in astronauts, but also in populations on Earth, such as people with low back pain or those with postural instability.”

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