June 12, 2024

When faced with acid-dripping strangersan untested machine that move through wormholesor a space station crushed by debris that debrisis it the tough female astronaut who steps up to save the day.

And maybe Hollywood is on to something. A major study on the impact of spaceflight suggests that women may be more resilient than men to the stresses of space, and recover more quickly when they return to Earth.

The findings are preliminary, not least because so few female astronauts have been studied, but if the trend is confirmed, it could be important for astronaut recovery programs and the selection of crews for future missions to the moon and beyond.

“Men appear to be more affected by spaceflight for nearly all cell types and metrics,” scientists write in a Nature communication paper examining the effects of space travel on the human immune system.

Led by Christopher Mason, a professor of physiology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, a team of researchers investigated how the immune system responded to spaceflight in two men and two women who flew around the earth as civilians on the SpaceX. Inspiration4 mission in 2021, and compared the findings with data from 64 other astronauts.

The study showed that gene activity was more disrupted in men than in women and took longer to return to normal in men once they were back on terra firma. One protein affected was fibrinogen, which is essential for blood clotting.

“The overall data so far suggest that the gene regulatory and immune response to spaceflight is more sensitive in males,” the scientists write. “More studies will be needed to confirm these trends, but such results could have implications for recovery times and possibly crew selection, for example more women, for high altitude, lunar and deep space missions.”

It’s unclear why women might be more resilient to spaceflight than men, but Mason said being able to handle the demands of pregnancy could help. “Being able to tolerate large changes in physiology and fluid dynamics can be great for managing pregnancy, but also for managing the stresses of spaceflight on a physiological level,” he said.

The paper is among more than a dozen published Tuesday analyzing samples from the Inspiration4 mission team and other astronauts who spent six months or a year on the International Space Station. The measurements lay the foundation for a space biology database that will be used to reduce the health risks for future astronauts on their way to the moon, lunar orbit and possibly even Mars.

Nasa wants to fly people around the red planet as early as the 2030sbut another study published in Nature Communications raises serious doubts about the safety of such a long, deep space mission. The international team, led by researchers at University College London, exposed mice to simulated galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) and found that the dose humans might encounter on a round trip to Mars could cause permanent kidney damage, with astronauts potentially dialysis on the back leg if they are not protected from the rays.

Keith Siew, a research fellow in renal medicine at UCL, said the kidneys are extremely sensitive to radiation, but that permanent damage may not be apparent for months after exposure. The radiation appears to damage mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses in cells, which can eventually contribute to kidney failure.

“This is likely to be a serious problem,” says Stephen Walsh, professor of nephrology at UCL and a senior author of the study. One problem with GCRs is that shielding can make matters worse, because the incoming beams are so energetic that they produce secondary radiation that also harms astronauts. “It’s very hard to see how it’s going to be right,” he said.

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