Research shows astronauts' immune systems falter in space

A new study reveals the shocking impact of space travel on astronauts' immune systems.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Astronaut in Space
Astronaut in space


In a study involving 14 astronauts who spent extended periods aboard the International Space Station (ISS), scientists have uncovered the mechanisms behind the breakdown of the immune system in space. The research, published in the journal, Frontiers in Immunology, provides crucial insights into why astronauts are more susceptible to infections during their missions, revealing the weakening of their body's defense against pathogens.

The study, led by molecular biologist Odette Laneuville from the University of Ottawa in Canada, examined gene expression in leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, isolated from blood drawn from the astronauts. The team, consisting of researchers from the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, conducted blood samples before the flight, during the astronauts' time aboard the space station, and after their return to Earth.

The findings showed that gene expression in leukocytes decreased significantly upon reaching space, reaching approximately one-third of the normal levels. This decline occurred within the first few days in space and remained stable throughout the mission. However, upon returning to Earth, the genes gradually returned to their normal behavior within about a month.

"White blood cells are very sensitive to the environment of space. They trade their specialized immune functions to take care of cell maintenance or housekeeping roles. Before this paper, we knew of immune dysfunction but not of the mechanisms," explained study co-author Guy Trudel, a rehabilitation medicine specialist from the Ottawa Hospital.

This altered behavior of leukocyte genes may be attributed to a phenomenon called "fluid shift," wherein the absence of Earth's gravitational pull causes a redistribution of blood from the lower to the upper part of the body. However, the increased solar radiation exposure in space did not appear to be the primary cause of the immune system weakening.

The implications of this finding.

The implications of these findings are significant. Weaker immunity increases the risk of infectious diseases, compromising astronauts' ability to perform their demanding work in space. Moreover, if an infection or immune-related condition were to escalate to a severe state requiring medical intervention, astronauts in space would face limited access to care, medication, or evacuation.

Research shows astronauts' immune systems falter in space
Astronauts in space

It is not the first time scientists have observed immune dysfunction in space. Astronauts have previously experienced the reactivation of latent viruses, including Epstein-Barr, varicella-zoster, and herpes simplex 1. Furthermore, shedding viral particles in biological fluids such as saliva and urine is more prevalent in astronauts, heightening the risk of pathogen transmission to other crew members with weakened immune systems.

The research team's next focus is developing specific countermeasures to prevent immune suppression during long-duration space flights. Understanding the mechanisms underlying immune dysregulation in space not only addresses the health risks faced by astronauts but also has the potential to contribute to personalized medicine on Earth.

As we delve further into the mysteries of space, it becomes increasingly clear that our bodies are not equipped to handle the harsh conditions beyond our planet. The study's findings highlight the urgent need for protective measures and innovative solutions to safeguard the health of astronauts during space exploration.

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