NASA ‘Twins Study’ decodes space impact on human body

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module with both access doors open

Besides the reality that only Scott Kelly's body has been evaluated so extensively after a year in space (that's a really small sample size), it's still unknown how the human body will fair during longer duration missions, specifically those to Mars. Mark provided a baseline for observation on Earth, and Scott provided a comparable test case during the 340 days he spent in space aboard the International Space Station for Expeditions 43, 44, 45 and 46. "The findings give us clues to what we should examine more closely in future studies of astronauts".

Published in the journal Science on Thursday, the findings might seem a little underwhelming at first glance.

NASA already knew some of the toll of space travel, such as bone loss that requires exercise to counter.

Studying twins provided a unique opportunity for researchers to observe physical and genetic differences brought on by space travel. Some results had been reported in February. Telomeres typically shorten as a person ages. "There are studies that link changes in the gut microbiome with neurological and physiological conditions, like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism and schizophrenia". For example, the scientists found methylation changes near genes involved in immune system responses in Scott during his time in space, but not in Mark. "We were surprised", said Colorado State University telomere expert Susan Bailey.

When astronaut Scott Kelly landed in the frigid Kazakhstan plains on March 2, 2016, a team of responders pulled Kelly and two Russian cosmonauts from the charred capsule and carried them to chairs, set out in the crisp morning air. Back on Earth, his telomeres mostly returned to preflight average although he did have more short telomeres than before. All of these changes returned to stable or baseline levels after he landed, though some DNA damage and T-cell activation still remain. Scott Kelly was certainly affected by the stresses of space but once he got back to Earth, numerous changes his body underwent reversed as if he wasn't in space at all.

While in space, researchers observed changes in the expression of Scott's genes, with the majority returning to normal after six months on Earth. Thanks to these measures and the astronauts who tenaciously accomplish them, the human body remains robust and resilient even after spending a year in space.

-He experienced some chromosomal instability that might reflect radiation exposure in space.

Astronauts in space are also exposed to higher levels of radiation without the Earth's atmosphere there to act as a filter. His performance on cognitive tests improved throughout much of the mission, but performance on tests created to measure his ability to recognize emotions in other people declined.

Image caption: Scott Kelly's yearlong mission was the longest any American has spent in space.

Among his changes, about 7 percent persisted after six months on Earth, according to NASA.

He said one of the hardest problems he faced was adjusting to an unscheduled existence, in sharp contrast to life on the space station.

During a teleconference he joked with his twin, "I got all the glory and you got a lot of work".

"And I got people coming to my house for tubes of blood", Mark replied. If we had hundreds of identical twins, would we see that same result?

"Put me in, coach", he said.

"There were ten teams of researchers but only one article", said Martha Vitaterna, first author of the Northwestern study.

Supply vessels transported urine, blood and stool samples from Scott back to Earth. One of the study's technological advances: Portable DNA-sequencing equipment that will let astronauts run some of their own genomic analyses on future missions, said Weill Cornell's Mason.

"If you just study one twin pair, you can't really draw biological implications", he said, adding the study is "the beginning of the era of human genomics in space". And longer missions, to the moon or Mars, will mean greater stress and radiation exposure.

Part of the record-setting one-year mission, the NASA Twins Study incorporated 10 investigations to advance NASA's mission and benefit all of humanity.

NASA has more on humans in space.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education.

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