It’s a great day when you check your post box in work to find a contract there from the European Space Agency (ESA) to fund your research for the next two years! I am very excited about this opportunity and the fantastic research that will arise from it! I have been working on ESA funded bed rest studies since 2015 in association with Dr Donal O’Gorman in DCU.
What research have we been doing with ESA?
Space is an extremely challenging environment for the human body. The microgravity environment that exists in space causes a host of changes in the human body including loss of muscle, loss of bone, gains in fat mass, alterations in metabolic health, fluid shifts towards the face which in turn leads to issues with vision, and so much more! Our aim as researchers is to (i) identify the challenges that exist to the human body, and (ii) develop effective diet and exercise interventions that counteract these challenges. This will keep astronauts healthier for longer in space, and will allow for great exploration to take place. The countermeasures must also be very time efficient because the astronauts schedule in space is extremely busy, as confirmed by Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to travel to the international space station. Chris gave a very inspiring and amazing presentation in the Board Gais Theatre in Dublin in February 2017. I would highly recommend you see this if you ever have the opportunity!
It is difficult for us to study astronauts in space so the next best thing is bed rest. The adaptations that occur in the body to prolonged bed rest and physical inactivity are actually very like what happens to the human body in space. For this reason we conduct 60 day bed rest studies and use these opportunities to identify changes that occur in the hum body, and test new types of diet and exercise interventions to see if we can delay or stop the negative changes. The last bed rest study I was involved in was conducted in the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) between September 2015 and April 2016. For this study 24 healthy males were put to bed for 60 days! The picture below shows 12 of these participants.
The 24 participants were divided into 2 groups. Twelve of the participants went to bed for 60 days and were called the control group. This means they just went to bed for 60 days. They were instructed not to sit up for 60 days and to always have one shoulder in contact with the bed. They had to do everything lying down from reading to eating to showering and everything else that needs to be done every day! The other 12 participants did this also, in addition to taking part in a novel exercise training intervention for ~15minutes per day. This group was called the intervention group. The exercise intervention involved performing a number of high intensity resistive jumps in a horizontal position 6 days per week. The picture below depicts the training system. In my first visit to the German Aerospace Centre I got in to the system and tried it. It’s much more difficult that it looks!
Before and after the 60 days of bed rest, all of the European researchers came together with the core research staff in the DLR and performed up to 90 experiments. At this point I have to acknowledge the incredible work done by the team in the DLR. The logistics of this project is absolutely astronomical and they are really an amazing team! Our research group is very interested in the impact of bed rest / microgravity on muscle health, function and size, so we took muscle biopsies from the thighs of the participants before and after the 60 days. We were also interested to see the effects of the novel resistive jumps on muscle.
My own research is very much focused on metabolic health. We had the participants undergo a 3 hour oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT). For this test the participants come to the lab (in their beds!) fasted. We insert a line in to their arm and take some fasting blood samples. We then give them a glucose (sugar) drink and take blood samples from their line every 30 minutes for 3 hours. We use these blood samples to track how well their body deals with the glucose load, and how well their insulin functions to help them with this process. We know exercise training and fitness improves our ability to deal with glucose and fat and keep our blood sugars and blood lipids in the normal healthy range, so we expect to see some difference between both of these groups – even with such a small volume of exercise per day!
I am also currently investigating what we call ‘novel biomarkers of insulin resistance’. So we now know that all organs and tissues in the body are very metabolically active. Your fat tissue (adipose tissue), muscle, liver, brain, gut etc. all produce a range of hormones and biomarkers. These biomarkers are either pro-inflammatory (contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease), or they are anti-inflammatory (protect you from chronic disease). Generally speaking people who are normal weight, have normal body fat levels and are fit have a high circulating concentration of these anti-inflammatory biomarkers in their blood, so they are protected from the development of chronic disease. On the other hand, individuals who are overweight and very inactive or unfit have a high circulating concentration of the pro-inflammatory biomarkers in their blood, and are far more likely to develop conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In this particular ESA research study we have taken 24 healthy males who normal weight, fit and active and we have put them into bed rest. The severe physical inactivity will alter their body composition, fitness and metabolic state negatively which will in turn impact the production and circulating concentration of these biomarkers. Don’t worry we help them to reverse this afterwards! So I will basically spend the summer doing this analysis.
In my other work in True Fitness we spend our time working with people who want to improve their lifestyles. In our True Transformation programme we change their diet and activity levels to decrease the production of the pro-inflammatory biomarkers (harmful to health), and increase the production of anti-inflammatory (health protective) biomarkers. This is one of the reasons we ask our clients to have blood samples taken so we can show them the improvements in their cardiovascular and metabolic health. We also include numerous health education workshops so that we can teach people what we know about health and wellbeing, and give them the skills they need to make informed decisions moving forward. Please see link to True Transformation if you are interested. Most of our in studio programme are funded by the HSE and Laois Sports Partnership so they are free to participants. Maybe keep an eye our for our next course if you are interested!
Back to the research study…..all of our samples have been recently shipped to us in Ireland so our metabolic team is currently very busy trying to figure out all of the complicated changes that occurred in the participants bodies, and why, and how effective was the exercise intervention? If it is effective it might be something that could be included in the international space station in addition to the other methods that are currently used, but it could possibly be much more time efficient!
I am also trying to identify a panel of biomarkers that best reflect a persons metabolic health. If we can determine this we will be able to look at their health in ‘real time’ and design personalised interventions to keep them healthy. Interestingly, although I am talking about space research, this also applies to people who are very inactive here on earth, people who are confined to bed, and ageing inactive adults. We hope to be able to use our results to help all of these populations here on earth to improve their own health.
What will the funding be used for?
It will be used to transfer my current masters student to the PhD registrar. It will fund the analysis of the muscle and blood samples I referred to above. It will also fund some other very interesting work we have planned for 2018, so I will keep you posted on that closer to the time. I am extremely grateful to PRODEX and ESA for this funding and very excited about the research opportunities this creates.
Does any of this apply to you?
Yes! From the research that I do I would strongly advise everyone to get active and stay active if you want to have a long health span!
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog.
Yours in health,
Dr Diane Cooper.