Astronauts’ bodies go through processes similar to those caused by ageing
Being in space isn’t all gravity-free fun and games – the conditions are actually very taxing on the body. In fact, astronauts’ bodies go through processes similar to those caused by ageing: cell death increases, just as it does when people get older. But scientists investigating how we could potentially live on other planets, if we find any that are habitable, have discovered an enzyme – 5-lipoxygenase – which appears to be directly involved in the cell-death process. If they can figure out away to adjust levels of the enzyme they could, in theory, also be able to prevent some of the processes of ageing to some degree.
The researchers, from the University of Teramo in Italy, tested the effects of microgravity on human lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell which is part of the body’s immune system) by putting two groups of lymphocytes on board the International Space Station, but exposing only one group to an Earth-like gravitational force. That way both groups were exposed to the same environment, with gravity being the only differentiating factor. When they checked the lymphocytes, they found that those exposed to space-like gravity had significantly greater levels of cell death, greater than what is considered normal. And as the groups of lymphocytes had different levels of the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme, the researchers believe that it could be the cause of increased cell death.
Cell death is responsible immunodepression in astronauts and because of this scientists have already pinpointed and utilised medication that helps inhibit the processing of the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme – otherwise they risk astronauts becoming sick while in space. The researchers theorise that perhaps these same medications could be used to prevent loss of immune performance in older people too.