We know that microgravity, the low levels of gravity found in space, has strange effects on plants and the way that they grow. Now new research is looking at how microgravity affects animals and in particular the way that they age.
The International Space Station (ISS) will be playing host to a group of mice to see how a stint in microgravity affects their aging. The experiment, called Rodent Research-8, is using mice to understand the physiological changes associated with aging that are caused by time spent in low gravity environments. “The objective is to expose the mice to microgravity and track physiological changes,” Michael S. Roberts, deputy chief scientist at the U.S. National Laboratory, said in a statement.
The scientists will keep one group of young mice between 10 and 16 weeks old and one group of older mice between 30 and 52 weeks old in the ISS for different periods of time between 30 and 60 days. Then they can see how active each group of mice is to determine whether some of them experienced accelerated aging. Activity is known to decline over time so it should provide a measure of aging effects.
This research is important because previous research has shown that spending time in microgravity can cause a range of issues like bone density loss, immune dysfunction, cardiovascular issues such as stiffening of arteries, and loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength in astronauts. These changes are similar to the aging process that happens on Earth, but sped up.
“We are trying to get down to the molecular basis for what is happening,” Roberts said. “To use mice or other organisms as models for studying humans, we need to understand whether the effects of space exposure have the same causes and outcomes as conditions in humans on Earth. We want to see if the same things happen in mice and whether the rate of change is affected by the age of the mouse at exposure.”
Not only could this research help protect astronauts from the deleterious effects of space travel, it could even pave the way to lessening the effects of aging on Earth by developing countermeasures and therapies that protect astronauts and people with age-related health conditions.