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How Space Travel Alters Our Immunity – New Study Reveals

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A new study shows how space travel influences the immune system, revealing an intriguing ebb and flow of immunity as astronauts journey to space and back, impacting future long-term space missions.

Space Travel: What Weakens Our Immune Systems?

An increasing body of evidence points towards heightened vulnerability to infections in astronauts during space voyages. Symptoms, such as skin rashes and various respiratory and non-respiratory ailments, frequently afflict astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Additionally, they appear to release more live viral particles, including Epstein-Barr virus, varicella-zoster causing shingles, herpes-simplex-1 behind sores, and cytomegalovirus. These phenomena hint at a potential weakening of the immune system due to space travel, sparking questions about the root cause of such immune decline.

“Here we show that the expression of many genes related to immune functions rapidly decreases when astronauts reach space, while the opposite happens when they return to Earth after six months aboard the ISS,” remarked lead author Dr. Odette Laneuville.

The findings sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency were published today in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

This study focused on gene expression in leukocytes or white blood cells from a group of 14 astronauts, comprising three women and 11 men, who spent between 4.5 and 6.5 months on the ISS from 2015 to 2019. Leukocytes were separated from 4 milliliters of blood collected from each astronaut at ten different stages: once before flight, four times during the flight, and five times post-return.

The Journey Out and Back

The researchers detected differential expression in 15,410 genes in leukocytes. They categorized these genes into two distinct clusters, comprising 247 and 29 genes each, which demonstrated simultaneous shifts in expression during the study period.

The genes in the first cluster exhibited a decrease in expression in space and an increase upon return to Earth, while those in the second cluster showed a reverse trend. Each cluster primarily included genes encoding proteins. However, the primary functions of these genes differed: the genes in the first cluster were largely immunity-related, while those in the second cluster pertained to cellular structures and functions.

The study’s findings imply that space travel triggers modifications in gene expression, leading to an immediate weakening of the immune system.

Dr. Guy Trudel, a rehabilitation physician, researcher at The Ottawa Hospital, and professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Ottawa, added, “A weaker immunity increases the risk of infectious diseases, limiting astronauts’ ability to perform their demanding missions in space. If an infection or an immune-related condition was to evolve to a severe state requiring medical care, astronauts while in space would have limited access to care, medication, or evacuation.”

Regaining Normalcy Post-Space Travel

Interestingly, amidst this somewhat grim situation, there is a beacon of hope. The research data indicated that the majority of genes in both clusters revert to their pre-flight expression levels within a year of returning to Earth, and often, the recovery is even quicker – typically within a few weeks. This suggests that astronauts freshly returned from space bear a heightened risk of infection for at least a month after their homecoming.

However, the researchers are yet to ascertain the time duration it takes for immune resistance to regain its full pre-flight vigor. This span likely hinges on several factors, including age, sex, genetic variances, and early-life exposure to pathogens.

The research team posits that the alterations in leukocyte gene expression under microgravity are provoked by a phenomenon known as ‘fluid shift’. This involves a redistribution of blood plasma from the lower body towards the upper part, encompassing the lymphatic system. This shift results in a decrease in plasma volume by about 10% to 15% within the first few days in space. It’s well-known that fluid shift accompanies extensive physiological adjustments, seemingly including changes in gene expression.

Preventive Measures Against Space-Induced Immune Compromises

“The next question is how to apply our findings to guide the design of countermeasures that will prevent immune suppression while in space in particular for long duration flight,” added Laneuville.

“The health of astronauts while in space, especially during long missions, would benefit from detecting both immune dysfunction and sub-clinical inflammation. Early detection provides opportunities for intervention, with the aim to prevent a progression towards severe symptoms.”

Image Credit: Getty

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