Space technology could help long-stay hospital patients

Scientists are learning how to tackle muscle wasting in astronauts who experience zero gravity in space, which can also be used to help patients who develop muscle weakness from lengthy stays in a hospital bed, or those suffering from lower back pain.

The new research projects at Manchester Metropolitan University and Northumbria University are being supported by the UK Space Agency, ESA, NASA and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR).

The project at Manchester Metropolitan University is led by Professor Hans Degens’ team from the research centre for Musculoskeletal Science and Sports Medicine.

The team will perform a series of medical tests on volunteers subjected to 60 days of bed-rest, which mimics the microgravity conditions of space travel. But some will also spend 30 minutes each day strapped into the human centrifuge, where they lay flat as it spins, simulating the force of gravity experienced when standing on Earth.

Professor Hans Degens said: "Artificial gravity could help astronauts to maintain muscle mass in space and help back here on Earth too by preventing severe muscle degeneration in hospitalised patients.

"Currently astronauts have to exercise for up to two and a half hours every day, take nutrient supplements, and keep high protein diets to maintain muscle mass while they are in space. Despite this, severe muscle deterioration still occurs.

"One day, astronauts might have a daily quick spin in a centrifuge on the ISS rather than spend hours on gym equipment in space. For hospital patients it could greatly improve their recovery during rehabilitation and after they leave."

The team from Northumbria University’s Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation Laboratory, led by Professor Nick Caplan, is interested in spinal postural deconditioning, an issue linked to lower back pain and age-related problems with balance.

The study will use the human centrifuge to explore the effectiveness of daily exposure to artificial gravity in preventing spinal problems from developing. It will also test the effectiveness of a rehabilitation device – which resembles a customised gym cross trainer and is known as the Functional Re-adaptive Exercise Device (FRED) – in the early weeks following the 60 day bed rest period.

Professor Nick Caplan said: "The bedrest study is providing an ideal platform for us to determine how suitable our device is for use in the rehabilitation of astronauts when they have spent time aboard the International Space Station in microgravity.

"We will be using advanced neurophysiological and medical imaging techniques to understand how the spinal postural muscles adapt to simulated microgravity and determine the effectiveness of a rehabilitation programme designed for use not just in astronauts, but also in populations on Earth, such as people with low back pain or those with postural instability."

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