Space travel and your joints

Space travel and your joints
Mice subject. Credit: Institute for Biomedical Problems, Moscow

A novel Henry Ford Hospital study of mice aboard a Russian spaceflight may raise an intriguing question for the astronauts of tomorrow: Could traveling in space be bad for your joints?

Researchers found early signs of cartilage breakdown in the mice, suggesting that the reduced biomechanical forces of spaceflight are at play on the musculoskeletal system.

While it's premature to translate the finding to humans, this first-of-its kind study adds to a growing body of research about the health effects of spaceflight on the musculoskeletal system. Research has shown that living and working in leads to many changes in the including the , and the shape of a person's eyes.

The study is published online in npg Microgravity, part of the Nature Partner Journals publishing group.

Jamie Fitzgerald, Ph.D., head of musculoskeletal genetics at Henry Ford's Department of Orthopedic Surgery and the study's lead author, says evidence of articular cartilage breakdown in the mice was "clear-cut."

"We believe this degradation is due to joint unloading caused by the near lack of gravity in space," he says. "If this were to happen to humans, given enough time, it would lead to major joint problems."

Researchers theorize that because the biomechanical forces in space are different from those on Earth, changes to the musculoskeletal system occur.

"We do know that tissues of the musculoskeletal system—bone, muscle, tendon, cartilage and ligament—are constantly subjected to 'loading' everywhere on Earth," Dr. Fitzgerald says.

"This comes from daily activities like walking and lifting, and the action of gravity pulling down on the . When that loading is removed due to weightlessness and near zero gravity in space, these tissues begin to degrade. The most dramatic example is the atrophy of muscle and demineralization of bones that occurs during spaceflight.

"This muscle and bone loss are reversed when the astronauts return to Earth. What is interesting about cartilage is that it's a tissue that repairs very poorly. This raises the important question of whether cartilage also degrades in space."

Space travel and your joints
Mice were carried in this animal enclosure during spaceflight. Credit: Institute for Biomedical Problems, Moscow

For the study, funded by a $100,000 NASA grant, Dr. Fitzgerald and his research team analyzed the molecular changes in the cartilage of mice that spent 30 days in animal research enclosures aboard an unmanned Russian Bion-M1 spacecraft in 2013. This included performing tissue stains and gene expression studies on the cartilage. The results were compared to mice observed on Earth during the same period.

Dr. Fitzgerald says the changes were consistent with those associated with osteoarthritis.

"Overall, we can say that after 30 days of microgravity, the process of cartilage degrading began," he says. "We saw changes in the gene expressions that were consistent with cartilage breakdown."

Video footage taken of the mice showed them floating around in their enclosure during the day. At night, the footage showed them struggling to climb over each and hang onto the grate inside the enclosure. "The mice did experience some loading on the joints as they tried to hang onto each other. It wasn't a complete unloading," Dr. Fitzgerald says.

In comparison, the on Earth showed no discernible cartilage degradation.

"When there's no gravity pulling down on the cartilage, it's not able to maintain its structure, its integrity," Dr. Fitzgerald says. "On Earth, every time you take a step to walk, you're loading that cartilage. In space, there's very little of that."

Dr. Fitzgerald says NASA is interested in developing a better understanding of what happens to the human body in space. More research is needed, he says, especially with a potential trip to Mars in the future.

"You may have some payload specialists and experienced pilots who already have some degree of pre-symptomatic cartilage damage at the time of their flight," Dr. Fitzgerald says. "Because in humans doesn't readily repair, the return to Earth could potentially bring long-term health problems."

Explore further

Image: Studying astronauts' knees to rehabilitate bedridden, Earth-bound patients

More information: Jamie Fitzgerald et al, Articular cartilage and sternal fibrocartilage respond differently to extended microgravity, npj Microgravity (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41526-019-0063-6
Citation: Space travel and your joints (2019, May 22) retrieved 24 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 22, 2019
As more and more of these studies show in detail the effects of microgravity on mammal anatomy, it begs the question should we not go ahead and start testing the effects of artificial gravity, ON EARTH.

Would it be plausible to set up an experiment with tilted upright cylinder, like a hamster wheel, but on the order of 50 meters in diameter. Pulse it on 7'oclock, and have brakes that slow it down, in such a smooth controlled manner, as the occupant inside does not feel inertial acceleration, and can walk about freely in this spinning cylinder?

May 22, 2019
JOINTS?? Grind your weed, for God's sake. **Grinding your weed, as opposed to just picking it apart with your fingers, makes the product much easier to work with. It's also the best way to ensure your hard-earned joint won't end up lopsided. Pick out the stems before grinding. And, after you're finished, empty out the grounds onto the table or a classy dish like this one.

May 23, 2019
Or just forego the entire mess and use tincture. There's tons of high quality lab tested tincture products on the market today, if you're allowed to said market. If not, then that sucks for you.

May 23, 2019
Oh great! Dopefiends advising us about billion dollar scientific research programs.
Well, their taxpayers to. right?

Makes me want to go have another couple of fingers of Rye & soda.
It's medicinal, you know!

Wait! Where have we heard this before?

As for the research in this article. Yet one more nail in the coffin of Biology in Space.

& the next person who suggest a "crash" genetics program to adapt Human's to Low-gee/zero-gee/high radiation/blindness-inducing environment?

I am demanding a sworn, witnessed notarized statement from their wife.
That the woman understands & fully agrees for themselves & their children to be utilized as test subjects. lab animals.

So that their husband (& perhaps father?) can become famous enough to party with trumps & kardashians.

May 23, 2019
JOINTS?? Grind your weed, for God's sake. **Grinding your weed, as opposed to just picking it apart with your fingers, makes the product much easier to work with. It's also the best way to ensure your hard-earned joint won't end up lopsided. Pick out the stems before grinding. And, after you're finished, empty out the grounds onto the table or a classy dish like this one.

As vast as space is, I'll be smoking many joints.

May 23, 2019

Are you implying my idea is a crash genetics program? Nothing about my idea has anything to do with genetics. It is simply a building sized centrifuge with gear differentials and what would likely have to be a boat engine of some variety to keep it spinning for a long period of time. It is an experiment we could do now, with humans, if they are willing. I would be willing to do it even. Sign me up. Nasa could pay me for six months in the centrifuge, cat-scan me twice, and be done with it.

Also, there is no negative stigmatism associated with cannabis where I live anymore, so say whatever you want about it. We don't care anymore in our region.

May 24, 2019
Not a bad response ren. Mostly coherent.

If you are worried by how the women in your life would respond to being "volunteered" for experimental subjects?

You might ask them?

My advice would be to listen to what they have to say about the subject of our society's long infatuation with our "Peculiar Institution".

Instead of telling them what opinions you will permit them to express.

ren, buddy, You also seem rather, uhm, sensitive, maybe obsessed? With other people's opinions of soaking dope.

As long as you are not behind the wheel on a public highway while DUI?
Or preforming surgery?
I actually could not care less what your specific poison of choice is{period}

I thought I was making a joke about my own bad habit of overly relying on alcohol.

You most definitely would prefer that I was NOT piloting your rocketship!

May 24, 2019
Were you implying my idea was a crash genetics program?

Also the questions about gender/personal life was never brought up by me, so I'm not tracking what you're talking about/insinuating there.

Lastly, I would not have anyone pilot my rocketship preferably. Automation is King. err.. Queen @rr

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more