Published: 02 December 2015

Space sleep study to shed light on ageing

The University is participating in a project organised by the European Space Agency to look at the effect of bed rest on astronauts which could contribute to advances in healthcare for older people.

Using the simulated micro-gravity of space, Surrey scientists will conduct a pioneering sleep study to investigate the health complaints experienced by both astronauts and the elderly, such as bone and muscle loss, poor immune systems and increased inflammation.

After five months in orbit an astronaut can typically lose as much as 40% of muscle and 12% of bone mass as the ability to float around the capsule means there is less load bearing on the body and a decrease in activity. Similarly, lack of exercise is also one of the contributory causes of osteoporosis (bone loss) which affects over a third of women and one in five men in the UK.

In the study, young, healthy male volunteers will spend two weeks living ‘normally’ in the lab. They will then undergo 60 days of continuous bed rest, with beds tilted backwards by six degrees to simulate micro gravity. Half the volunteers will form the control group, while the other half will be given an anti-oxidant drug cocktail designed to suppress inflammation.

During the experiment, researchers will measure changes to the participants’ sleep/wake patterns and take regular blood samples to monitor how genes change.

Lead researcher Dr Simon Archer said: “This study will not only provide valuable insight into how health problems experienced by astronauts in space can be avoided, but it will also bring us one step closer to understanding the mechanisms associated with the ageing process.

“Our research will provide more details about some of the molecular processes that are affected by micro gravity simulation, and how these relate to low muscle and bone mass, suppressed immune function and increased inflammation. It will give the European Space Agency more molecular data on whether drug interventions can reduce these harmful effects.”

David Parker, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, added: “We are delighted to see Dr Simon Archer and his team involved in this project. This is a great example of how research using space facilities can deliver real benefits here on Earth – and how world-leading experts from the UK are making a positive contribution to international space exploration.”

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