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Japan: Human Health in Space Astronauts' Muscle Problems Resolved by Studying Microgravity Worms

Source: Press release

When astronauts travel to space their body becomes almost weightless which leads to neuromuscular decline. Researchers at Japan’s Tohoku University analyzed microgravity worms and revealed a study that suggests that muscular decline can be prevented to ensure safe human deep-space travel.

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The study suggests that targeting the dopamine system through physical contact with objects can prevent muscular decline and is a realistic treatment strategy to promote safe human deep-space travel.
The study suggests that targeting the dopamine system through physical contact with objects can prevent muscular decline and is a realistic treatment strategy to promote safe human deep-space travel.
(Source: Tohoku University)

They found that the microgravity-grown worms had reduced levels of both molecules. The dopamine levels in space-grown worms were less than half the levels found in worms grown under normal gravity conditions, making them swim more slowly. Administering dopamine reversed these effects, restoring normal movement and body length.

Next, the researchers tested whether the neuromuscular decline was a direct result of microgravity or an indirect effect of reduced physical contact. They compared adult worms grown in simulated microgravity conditions, which were placed in physical contact with plastic microbeads or in liquid where they were buoyant and lost contact with the base of the dish. The dopamine and COMT-4 levels did not decline in the first group and the worms showed normal movement.

Contact stimulation altered locomotory gait and increased Ca2+ firing in the muscles of Caenorhabditis elegans.
Contact stimulation altered locomotory gait and increased Ca2+ firing in the muscles of Caenorhabditis elegans.
(Source: ©Atsushi Higashitani et al.)

Additionally, muscle calcium levels were reduced in adult worms grown in microgravity but were restored when the worms were placed in contact with the microbeads. Calcium plays an important role in muscle contraction by creating interactions between key proteins.

Overall, these results imply that the lack of physical contact that happens during near-weightlessness reduces dopamine levels and in turn causes neuromuscular impairments.

“We uncovered a pathway between physical contact, dopamine and muscle regulation that controls neuromuscular health in microgravity,” says Higashitani. “Introducing physical contact re-establishes this pathway and helps to restore muscle function.”

This study suggests that targeting the dopamine system through physical contact with objects can prevent muscular decline and is a realistic treatment strategy to promote safe human deep-space travel. Gentle mechanical contact, such as hand and foot massages, could be used to maintain neuromuscular health in astronauts and might even help elderly people with impaired motor function.

A graphic abstract of the current research.
A graphic abstract of the current research.
(Source: ©Atsushi Higashitani et al.)

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