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September 16th, 2008
11:43 AM ET

Health lessons from space

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

A few weeks ago, my producer Chris Gajilan and I got on the phone to talk about a series of stories we wanted to do on space medicine. I was really excited because since I was a kid, I have always been interested in space and had dreams one day of going there. Life, though, does sometimes take you in different directions, and I opted for the brain surgery job, instead of the rocket scientist…ba dum. I’ll be here all week…

Seriously, though, when I heard NASA scientists had come up with a model of weightlessness here on Earth, I jumped at the chance to investigate. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. In order to re-create the fluid shifts that are seen with prolonged space travel, scientists decided to put a group of patients at bed rest… for 3 months. Head down about 6 degrees, feet up, and absolutely no getting out of bed. As I learned, while extremely cumbersome, it is a pretty good model.

Over time, lots of things start to happen to your body, things that can be devastating. Turns out, as human beings, we like a little gravity. It keeps just enough pressure on our joints and bones to keep them strong. Without the usual gravitational force, our bones start to wither away. And, the calcium that starts seeping out of the bones finds its way into our bloodstream and can cause painful and sometimes dangerous kidney stones. Astronauts can develop advanced bone loss. As astronauts push farther into space on longer missions, the concern is that they will face debilitating osteoporosis so severe they can spontaneously break bones.

So, NASA scientists now had two challenges. One was to create the model. Two: figure out a way to prevent some of these serious health problems when astronauts are in space for prolonged periods. Tomorrow, I will tell you what the smartest minds in the world came up with; but today, I wanted to see what you thought. What do you think are some of the biggest health problems for astronauts in space and what do you think could be done about them?

If you want to cheat… take a look at this preview (watch video).

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Micki

    I always figured one of the major health problems for astronauts would be lack of access to health care if anything happened. For instance, if an astronaut developed dangerous kidney stones, or appendicitis, who will do the surgery? If they have some sort of accident or major trauma, who would be qualified to fix that? And even if you have someone qualified, do you have the equipment, or the sterile environment, to perform whatever procedure needs to be done?

    September 17, 2008 at 04:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. H. Alan Wood

    Dr. Gupta's report on the space station was interesting but inaccurate. The astronauts are not living under zero gravity. They are only far enough away from the earth to experience approximately a 10-15% decrease in gravitational forces. The station is falling towards the earth and the floating is like going over the top of a hill in a car. Even that small reduction in gravity has significant effects on the astronauts. For instance, red blood cell production shuts down causing anemia – and that is just the tip of the ice berg of space medical problems. This is why we have not been back to the moon for decades.

    September 17, 2008 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Gita

    Wherever we are, we need to do exercise. Our body is meant for that!

    Since an astronaut's cardiovascular system becomes lazy in space and highly fine tuned receptors in neck artery and other arteries(opposes gravity to maintain blood flow to the brain) that sense change in blood pressure and flow are no longer necessary in microgravity as the blood pools around the heart and thorax(fluid shift in other words, quantity and distribution of body fluids alter as it is free of gravitational effect). One develops puffy nose,head ache and the sinuses swell. The fluid shift also shrinks the size of your legs.

    They need to do some exercise for legs(for the lower waist to maintain fluids in the lower part of the body). It's b'coz of gravity blood flows to the toes. Venous pressures(related to the gravity) is more in the feet than in the brain.

    The most abundant minerals in the blood are first calcium,second phosphorus in the ratio of 2:1. On earth, our bones support the weight of our body. The size and mass of our bones are balanced by the rate at which certain bone cells(osteoblasts) lay down new mineral layers and other cells (osteoclasts) which chew up those mineral layers. In space, our bones don't need to support the body and most weight bearing bones(hip,back,thigh) are not used much. As a result of this, osteoblasts reduce even though osteoclasts remain constant. This results in the reduction of size and mass of bones as an astronaut remains in space, leading to bone loss & finally to osteoporosis. As the bones chewed up by osteoclasts, the blood calcium concentration level increases and the kidney has to get rid of thsi excess calcium which makes them susceptible to form kidney stones.

    Our human red blood cells is biconcave discoid shape(like doughnut without a hole!). In space they transform to spherical shape but they return to their normal shape once the astronauts are back on earth. Very interesting. Another problem for astronauts is space radiation. Here on earth, the atmosphere and magnetic field provide shield for us from radiations(from outer space).

    Who wants to go to space anyway? It's so boring and unattractive. Earth and gravity are awesome.

    You want to go to space Sanjay? As a Doctor, may be you can experiment with it and come up with some remedies.

    September 17, 2008 at 13:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Elizabeth

    On the gravity point, both Dr. Gupta and Mr. Wood are a little inaccurate. Yes, at low earth orbit where the space station hangs out the force of gravity is at about 90% of the strength it is at at the earth's surface. However, as the space station and astronauts are in a constant state of free-fall which effectively counteracts that force, from their frame of reference they are experience zero gravity (or micro gravity to be precise). The effects on their bodies are the same as if they they were isolated in interstellar space.

    Anyway, I thing by far the biggest risk to astronauts is radiation. While chronic bone loss and medical emergencies are not good, all it takes is one moderate solar flare (a common event) to fry all the astronauts in minutes. The space station is lucky in this regard because it is in the earth's magnetosphere, but other trips to mars and the moon must deal with this. The best solutions are massive amounts of shielding by lead or heavy water (but this is very expensive to launch). I saw an article on a radiation damage pill that helped mice survive lethal doses if they took it an hour before exposure, this is also promising. Chronic radiation is also an obvious concern for future cancer.

    September 18, 2008 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.