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How Space Travel Can Damage Our Immune Systems

Research finds that living in low-gravity conditions can take a toll that goes far beyond an aversion to dehydrated foods

(Jonathan Knowles/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

We keep hearing it: Space travel is in our future. Mars One wants to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet. NASA’s been working on a program to send astronauts to visit an asteroid. And, if Richard Branson has his way, the the wealthiest among us, at least, will regularly be taking jaunts beyond Earth’s atmosphere in the near future.

With all the excitement, it’s easy to forget that science is still working to understand just what effects long-term space flight has on the human body. And the more closely we look at life in low-gravity, the more problems seems to come up—recent research has shown, for instance, that living off-planet can cause immune system problems.

A study published this week in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that mice exposed to the simulated effects of low gravity caused the animals’ immune systems to age prematurely. As Justin Scuiletti reports for PBS NewsHour, the major physical change was in the mice’s bone marrow, “which began to produce the B lymphocyte — cells that create antibodies — at levels similar to those of elderly mice.”

Astronauts have experienced related symptoms. A NASA study released last August investigated 28 crew members from the International Space Station and found that their immune systems were, as a NASA press release stated, “dazed and confused during spaceflight.” Some cell activity became heightened, while other cell activity became depressed. When the latter occurs, the immune system is hindered in its reaction to threats. This can cause the reawakening of previously dormant viruses. When cells activity becomes heightened, it means the immune system is working in overdrive, which can cause allergy-like symptoms.

All of this can spell big trouble for those future space travelers exploring the depths of the final frontier, far from doctors and comprehensive treatments. PBS NewsHour reports from the NASA study:

“Things like radiation, microbes, stress, microgravity, altered sleep cycles and isolation could all have an effect on crew member immune systems,” said Brian Crucian, a NASA immunology expert. “If this situation persisted for longer deep space missions, it could possibly increase risk of infection, hypersensitivity, or autoimmune issues for exploration astronauts.”

The good news is that scientists have time to address these problems and plan accordingly. One expert suggested that radiation shielding, specially crafted medicines or nutritional supplements might be implemented to help preserve the immune systems of travelers. And, as the authors of the mice study point out, such preparation could end up helping those with immune system problems here on Earth.

So don’t go putting away that space suit quite yet—science has a pretty good chance of catching up to our astronautical dreams before too long.

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