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Human Research

As early as the 1960s, NASA researchers began noticing that several symptoms of spaceflight mirrored those described by the elderly on Earth. At the same time, NASA researchers were conducting bedrest studies to mimic and study the effects of spaceflight; they observed that bedrest patients also experienced a number of symptoms that are typical in the elderly (although bedrest patients rapidly recover once they are out of bed). For example, bedrest patients and the elderly both experience steady losses of bone mass. Through the 1980s, the NASA database on the human body's adaptation to spaceflight grew steadily as space shuttle flights took place on a regular basis. Increased access to Russian space physiological data confirmed many of the patterns becoming apparent in the U.S. data set. The increasingly apparent similarities in symptoms between the effects of space flight and those accompanying aging led to an increasing collaboration between this nation's premier expert in space flight -- NASA -- and the country's premier organization for human health -- the National Institutes of Health, or NIH.

A posturography system measures how balance control is changed after astronauts return to Earth from spaceflight.

In 1989, NASA and the NIH's National Institute on Aging, or NIA, sponsored a joint workshop, the "Conference on Correlations of Aging and Space Effects on Biosystems." Conference participants included leading experts in gerontology and space physiology; they found a number of physiological and psychological areas where spaceflight and aging shared significant characteristic symptoms. The workshop addressed the question of whether some aspects of spaceflight (such as microgravity, high-energy radiation and stress) or simulated microgravity (such as bedrest) could provide an accelerated, acute environment for research on aging. Conference participants determined that the space environment might yield information about basic mechanisms of aging, and aging research might yield new approaches to dealing with the effects of weightlessness and the readaptation to Earth's gravity after spaceflight. Following this conference, NASA and the NIA continued discussions, interagency coordination and joint research. In fact, NIA was one of the 14 domestic and international partners with whom NASA worked during the groundbreaking Space Shuttle Neurolab research flight of April 1998.

With an eye toward broadening NASA/NIA cooperation, the two organizations sponsored a joint workshop in February 1997, "Aging and Space Flight: Expanding the Science Base." Following the recommendations of the workshop, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in September 1997 between the NASA Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications, or OLMSA, and the NIA. The agreement committed the agencies to work collaboratively on future ground-based and spaceflight research activities.

The participation of Senator John Glenn as a 77-year-old payload specialist provides an opportunity on STS-95 to carry out studies on the commonalities between the effects of spaceflight and aging. The results of the experiments carried out on Senator Glenn will be compared with those from the other astronauts on STS-95 as well as on other space flights. In addition, studies conducted before flight and after flight will be compared with findings from studies completed during the flight. Also, as a result of the STS-95 mission, NASA scientists and those from the NIA intramural research program have begun working collaboratively on joint research projects. In some cases, NASA and NIA researchers will conduct ground-based studies using subjects from the NIA's Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). The BLSA study follows the same individuals over the course of their adult lives. The information from these control studies will provide a database from non-astronaut subjects for comparison with the results from NASA studies.

Human Research
IMAGE: STS-95 crewmembers Steve Lindsey, left, and Pedro Duque
Astronauts learn to adjust to the microgravity environment aboard the space shuttle.
Fact Sheets:
Getting Pumped Up in Space: Cardiovascular Investigations
Fighting Infection in Space: Immune System Function and Response
Walking the Tight Rope: Balance Control After SpaceFlight
Maintaining Strength in Space: Bone, Muscle and Metabolic Studies
Sleeping Better in Space: Sleep Studies and Clinical Trials of Melatonin as a Hypnotic

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 03/03/2003
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