Pioneering muscle monitoring in space to help astronauts stay strong in low-gravity | Science & Technology

Astronauts have been able to track their muscle health in spaceflight for the first time using a handheld device, revealing which muscles are most at risk of weakening in low gravity conditions.

An international research team, including the University of Southampton and led by Charité University in Berlin, monitored the muscle health of twelve astronauts before, during and after a stay on the International Space Station (ISS).

Findings published in Nature Scientific Reportsindicate that the astronauts’ daily exercise regime was effective in preserving most muscle groups, but crucial lower leg muscles showed signs of deterioration.

The technology and assessment protocol used in space could also bring about a step-change in healthcare back on Earth, allowing healthcare professionals to better monitor muscle health in neuro-musculoskeletal conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease and stroke, and in patients in critical care.

“Being able to perform inflight muscle health checks will allow the astronauts to see which muscles are losing strength and adjust their exercise programme accordingly,” says Professor Maria Stokes OBE, UK lead of the project, from the School of Health Sciences at the University of Southampton. “Being able to personalise exercises like this will be crucial on future long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars.”

Muscle loss in space

Microgravity conditions during spaceflight mean astronauts’ bodies aren’t subjected to the workload they are used to on Earth, meaning muscles don’t have to work very hard to perform functional tasks onboard the spacecraft. This puts astronauts at risk of muscle weakness and bone loss, with up to a 20 per cent decrease in skeletal muscle mass over a month.

To counteract this, astronauts onboard the ISS perform an exercise programme for around two hours a day, six or seven days a week. Until now, monitoring the effectiveness of this programme has only been possible with pre- and post-flight checks due to a lack of…

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