Researchers have solved the mystery of why travelling through space accelerates ageing and causes long-lasting health problems – and it’s to do with the mitochondria that give our cells their energy.
Exposure to space radiation and micro-gravity during longer space missions is known to cause geriatric-type symptoms including bone and muscle-mass loss, immune dysfunctions, cardiovascular health risks, liver dysfunction and central-nervous-system-related issues.
But until now, very little has been known about why these changes occur.
Researchers have found that the health problems stem from damage to ‘mitochondria’ – the structures within human cells that produce energy needed to power them.
“This work has provided a missing jigsaw piece which could open up a whole new arena of space-biology research and therapeutics. It’s timely as the world is on the brink of a new era for space exploration, with a commitment to return to the Moon and a planned manned mission to Mars,” said Willian da Silveira of the Institute for Global Food Security.
The researchers looked at data collected from the NASA Twin Study; 59 astronauts over 15 years of space travel; as well as hundreds of cell samples that were previously flown in space.
The NASA Twin Study, in particular was helpful. This followed identical – and therefore genetically identical – twins Scott and Mark Kelly over time, the former going into space and the latter remaining on the ground, and highlighted many differences in their mitochondrial activity.
Based on their findings, the researchers recommend that dietary supplements, such as Coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant which occurs naturally in the body and produces energy, should be urgently explored to offset mitochondrial damage, alongside other measures such as exercise and pharmaceuticals.
‘Game-changer’ for space travel
These measures could be a game-changer for the future success of space missions and even space colonisation, they say.
Professor Gary Hardiman, also of the Institute for Global Food Security, said: “This study is important because it identifies mitochondrial dysfunction, a hallmark of ageing and metabolic diseases, as an adverse effect of space travel.”
The study, which is published in the journal Cell, also involved researchers from Queen’s University Belfast.