Disabilities & Medical Research in Space: What We Know So Far5 min read

Space travel has always been an exciting prospect. It’s the opportunity to explore beyond our terrestrial boundaries, ripe with possibilities to discover more about our universe than was once possible. But it also allows us vital chances to look inward, to learn more about the limitations of our human bodies, and to overcome them.

Health research is one of the most important roles astronauts have while in space. This research encompasses a wide range of areas, from the toll that differing gravity can have on the body to experimental medical technologies. It also has a use in public health, helping to provide new insights that help affect the welfare of the population at large as well as individual patients. Health research in space encompasses the whole spectrum, from nutritional research to microbiological experiments that help us understand how viruses spread.    

We’re going to examine a few key areas where NASA is helping to make important, practical advances in medical fields. How can this affect accessibility to space travel? What new discoveries in neurological and physical challenges have been made aboard the International Space Station (ISS)?

Disabled Space Travel

Our society is increasingly placing focus on improving accessibility for the disabled, from developing technologies that open up workplaces and public spaces to ensuring that the definition of who is considered disabled is broad enough to ensure that those with a wide range of physical and mental challenges are supported in difficult environments. How has NASA been addressing this?

While NASA is required to be compliant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a key part of astronaut selection has revolved around whether the candidate is physically fit enough to experience the grueling conditions of space flight. As we delve into the potential for the average person to tour the stars, there is a need to explore how those with disabilities can have equal access to space exploration opportunities. Among the arguments in favor of space travel for the disabled, as supported by Major Tim Peake, includes the fact that operating in minimal gravity means there is no reason why those with difficulties walking should be prevented from becoming astronauts. 

In 2001, Chris Hadfield became temporarily blind while on a spacewalk. This has highlighted the need to adopt tools and current equipment to be used by those with minimal sight. This could be instrumental in putting protocols in place to make space travel more accessible to those who are blind. By understanding how to overcome the temporary challenges astronauts face, we explore ways more can engage in exploration.

Space’s Effect Upon the Body

On any given mission, NASA astronauts undertake multiple research projects aboard the ISS, which has the capacity to conduct 250 different experiments at once. This includes a variety of health projects undertaken by the Human Research Program, which explores problems humans may face as we start to spend longer periods in space.

These projects make the astronauts themselves the test subjects, allowing them to be pushed to the limits to provide us with insights to best prepare for and prevent the long-term health repercussions of space flight. One prominent experiment saw astronaut Scott Kelly spend 342 days in space. This study found alterations to Kelly’s DNA, which was compared to his twin brother, fellow astronaut Mark Kelly. They also experimented with new types of exercise equipment designed to halt the progress of muscular atrophy. It was also discovered that one of the long term drawbacks of space travel included facial edema with pronounced effects on the bones and eyes. 

These space-focused experiments have benefits for patients on Earth. Research has found that low gravity conditions can positively affect progenitor cells (early versions of stem cells) which may lead to the formation of other types of cells that may be useful in cardiac repair. When simulating microgravity on Earth, after 6-7 days of inducing gene expression, scientists have found changes in calcium signaling pathways which could be used to improve stem-cell-based repairs. Why is this important? This research has led to early clinical trials of therapies for ischaemic cardiomyopathy, and it also helps those recovering from heart attacks.

Neurological Advances

The human brain and nervous system are complex sets of biological machinery that we don’t understand particularly well, which can make the treatment of neurological conditions challenging. There are many who are able to live rich lives with a neurological disorder. Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the best-known and important theoretical physicists of our time, negotiated the difficulties of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). NASA equipment is being explored for its potential to improve the day-to-day lives of those with these types of conditions.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic illness that affects the central nervous system. It causes inflammation and scarring around nerve fibers that disrupt the effectiveness with which the brain sends signals around the body. For many sufferers, they rely upon medications that prevent long term relapses, and not without side effects. Advances in the treatment of MS may come from the development of equipment for astronauts.

A space travel requirement is for astronauts to have a cooling system in their spacesuits. MS sufferers lack the fluid in their central nervous systems that insulates the nerves which makes for the efficient conduction of signals. Experimental data has shown that cooling the body’s temperature can help restore some conduction. A suit has been built which consists of a cap and vest that helps cool the body — developed from the same tech designed for use by astronauts. This suit isn’t only useful for MS patients; it is showing promise in the treatment of other neurological conditions including peripheral neuropathy, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy.

Conclusion

Space travel opens our species to new worlds, to explore the depths of our universe, but it is even more useful in helping to make sure each of us has the opportunity to live comfortable, rich lives. Whether preparing for a more diverse range of astronauts or researching medical technology, space explorers are helping to unlock more of our world.

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