NASA compared twin astronauts to see if space ages the human body

Being in space probably won't hurt you, new study shows

NASA twins study reveals long-term spaceflight’s impact on human health

After almost a year in orbit above the Earth on the International Space Station, astronaut Scott Kelly experienced extensive physiological changes, according to a study published today (April 11) in Science.

Scott Kelly's immune system worked fine in space and a flu vaccine administered in orbit performed just as it would on Earth, the study found. NASA called a strong immune system critical for lengthy space missions to safeguard astronauts from disease-causing microbes in the spacecraft environment. These connections, while interesting, are only associations, and more extensive studies would be needed to understand exactly how space flight changes human health, Snyder said.

"It is likely that these two astronauts have been studied at greater depth than any other person in history", said Chris Mason, a lead researcher studying the gene expression of the Kelly brothers, in a press release. Will space travelers age at different rates than those of us on Earth?

NASA plans to eventually establish bases for humans to live and work on the moon and Mars. Although it's unclear how permanent these effects are - or if they're even totally related to his time in space - the study has prompted NASA to dig deeper.

The US space agency NASA did just that and published the findings on Thursday of a landmark study that could provide insights into the hazards of long space flights such as a mission to Mars. The study will help inform future biomedical space research.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly made himself a guinea pig for all the people who dream of human journeys to Mars and other destinations in space. Along with his previous missions, he also holds the US record for most cumulative time spent in space. The goal of the NASA Twins Study is to determine the physiological and psychological health impacts of long-duration spaceflight by comparing the effect of space on one twin to the impact of the Earth environment on a genetically matched sibling. NASA called the findings "interesting, surprising and reassuring", detailing the changes in Kelly's body caused by his almost year-long time on the International Space Station.

More than 300 biological samples - stool, urine and blood - were collected from the twins at multiple times before, during and after the one year mission.

Feinberg and former postdoctoral student Lindsay Rizzardi, now a senior scientist at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, focused on epigenetic changes to Scott and Mark's genomes.

Turek and Vitaterna looked at how the composition of bacteria in Scott Kelly's gut changed over time and space. The largest difference occurred nine months into the mission when 79 percent of Scott's DNA was methylated, compared with 83 percent of Mark's. "He travels around, he golfs, his diet changes, and that is a big difference".

But in space, Scott Kelly's telomeres got longer.

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The Twins Study encompassed 10 separate research teams that thoroughly tracked the health and biology of both Scott in space and Mark on the ground.

"It was encouraging to see that there was no massive disruption of the epigenome in either Mark or Scott", says Rizzardi. "Our studies show that vaccination in space is feasible and effective".

Bailey said that from her perspective, "the most striking finding" is the elongation of Scott's telomeres in space. Really fast. Traveling at approximately 17,000 miles per hour, 300 miles above the Earth, astronauts watch 16 sunrises and sunsets every "day" while floating around in a box with a handful of people they depend on for survival. Feinberg, Rizzardi, and NASA scientist Brian Crucian developed detailed instructions for doing complicated experiments in microgravity.

But once he returned to Earth, she said, Scott's average telomere length shortened "very rapidly".

The researchers who carried out the "NASA Twins Study" found that most of the changes to Scott's body during his time in space returned to normal within months of his return to Earth - although not all of them.

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-Some changes in the structure of Kelly's eye and thickening of his retina suggested that, like about 40% of astronauts, he experienced symptoms of "spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome". The scientists also observed cognitive changes and increased stress levels in Scott during the flight, which, again, may not be attributed to space flight alone. While that doesn't directly equate to an increase in heart disease risk, said Mishra, it's a potential factor to watch for in future studies of the effects of long-term space exposure on humans.

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