NASA Twins Study offers new insight on how a human's body responds to spaceflight

April 11, 2019

When NASA decided to study identical twin astronauts -- one remaining on Earth while the other orbited high above for nearly one year, starting in March 2015 -- scientists were not sure what they would find.

Would Scott Kelly undergo a Benjamin Button or Interstellar-like effect, and return to Earth younger than his brother Mark?

Based on preliminary results released in January 2017, Colorado State University Professor Susan Bailey, who studies telomeres, or the protective "caps" on the ends of chromosomes, found that Scott's telomeres in his white blood cells got longer while in space. Changes in telomere length could mean a person is at risk for accelerated aging or the diseases that come along with getting older. Telomeres typically shorten as a person ages.

These findings ran counter to what Bailey thought might occur, and are confirmed in "The NASA Twins Study: A multi-dimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight," published in Science April 12.

To study the twins' telomeres, Bailey and her team received vials of their blood over 25 months, spanning time points before, during and after spaceflight. Her team processed and analyzed the precious samples, delivered fresh from the space station by Soyuz rocket and overnight couriers.

"We were surprised, that was the first reaction," said Bailey, when asked how it felt to see the initial findings. "But that's what science is all about, right?"

Results from the study have implications for astronauts and people who want to explore space in the years to come through private ventures as humankind ventures longer and deeper in space.

NASA has announced plans for a mission to Mars and to a cis-Lunar station (between the Earth and the Moon), which will provide new opportunities for studying what happens to the human body during extended spaceflight.

Twelve universities, more than 80 researchers

Bailey's project was one of 10 investigations supported by 84 researchers across 12 universities, all coordinated by NASA's Human Research Program.

Among the conclusions, the research teams found:Shorter telomeres mean a higher risk for some age-related health conditions

Bailey said that from her perspective, "the most striking finding" is the elongation of Scott's telomeres in space. While most of his telomeres returned to near pre-flight averages, he now has more short telomeres than he did prior to the 340-day mission.

Having shorter telomeres puts a person at higher risk for accelerated aging, said Bailey. This also increases the risk for diseases that come along with aging, including cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

"For us Earthlings, it's pretty similar," Bailey explained. "We all worry about getting older, and everyone wants to avoid cardiovascular disease and cancer. If we can figure out what's going on, what's causing these changes in telomere length, perhaps we could slow it down. That's something that would be of benefit to everybody."

Launching a new research mission

Bailey will continue her telomere research with NASA through a new project designed to answer questions about astronaut health and performance on long missions as they journey to the Moon and Mars.

In this integrated One-Year Mission Project, she'll study 10 astronauts on one-year missions, 10 on six-month missions, and 10 on trips from two to three months at a time. Health data will be compared with people on the ground who are in isolation for those same periods of time.

"We're trying to determine if it is indeed something specific about space flight that is causing the changes we've seen," she explained.

NASA's Human Research Program and Space Biology Program funded 25 proposals, all of which will contribute to the space agency's long-term plans, which include human missions to the Moon and Mars.

Through these studies, NASA aims to address five hazards of human space travel: space radiation, isolation and confinement, distance from Earth, gravity fields (or lack thereof), and hostile or closed environments that pose great risks to the human mind and body in space.

Colorado State University

Related Aging Articles from Brightsurf:

Surprises in 'active' aging
Aging is a process that affects not only living beings.

Aging-US: 'From Causes of Aging to Death from COVID-19' by Mikhail V. Blagosklonny
Aging-US recently published ''From Causes of Aging to Death from COVID-19'' by Blagosklonny et al. which reported that COVID-19 is not deadly early in life, but mortality increases exponentially with age - which is the strongest predictor of mortality.

Understanding the effect of aging on the genome
EPFL scientists have measured the molecular footprint that aging leaves on various mouse and human tissues.

Muscle aging: Stronger for longer
With life expectancy increasing, age-related diseases are also on the rise, including sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass due to aging.

Aging memories may not be 'worse, 'just 'different'
A study from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences adds nuance to the idea that an aging memory is a poor one and finds a potential correlation between the way people process the boundaries of events and episodic memory.

A new biomarker for the aging brain
Researchers at the RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research (BDR) in Japan have identified changes in the aging brain related to blood circulation.

Scientists invented an aging vaccine
A new way to prevent autoimmune diseases associated with aging like atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease was described in the article.

The first roadmap for ovarian aging
Infertility likely stems from age-related decline of the ovaries, but the molecular mechanisms that lead to this decline have been unclear.

Researchers discover new cause of cell aging
New research from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering could be key to our understanding of how the aging process works.

Deep Aging Clocks: The emergence of AI-based biomarkers of aging and longevity
The advent of deep biomarkers of aging, longevity and mortality presents a range of non-obvious applications.

Read More: Aging News and Aging Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to