Two European Space Agency (ESA) research contracts worth €135,000 have been awarded to Irish researchers Dr Dónal O’Gorman at DCU and Dr Brian Caulfield at UCD.

Announced today by Minister for Research & Innovation Seán Sherlock, the projects are focused on helping astronauts deal with ‘accelerated ageing’ and a lack of exercise in space.

“Astronauts can be in space for up to 18 months on missions to Mars and on board the International Space Station and so they have to adapt to the specific challenges of life in space such as the absence of gravity, high levels of radiation, and cramped living conditions, which often result in deterioration of the astronauts’ heart, muscle and bone condition,” said Dr Bryan Rodgers, Enterprise Ireland

“The research of Dr O’Gorman and Dr. Caulfield will address these issues and find solutions to enable astronauts to function healthily on critical missions,” he continued. This research also has applications in the healthcare markets back here on Earth, as the characteristics of natural human aging are similar to those experienced by astronauts.”

Dr O’Gorman, director of the Centre for Preventive Medicine at DCU, will use the ESA funding to investigate novel ways to prevent the negative impact of micro-gravity on the body. A key challenge for astronauts is the fact that the body seems to go through a process of accelerated ageing while in space. Astronauts who have been to the International Space Station lose muscle and bone mass and also begin to develop risk factors more commonly associated with older people. Dr O’Gorman is leading an ESA team to identify biomarkers to track these changes and is investigating if artificial gravity or nutritional modifications can prevent the negative consequences.

The best way to simulate microgravity on earth is to get people to lie in bed for between 21-60 days. Dr O’Gorman will simulate the effect of artificial gravity using a specialist human centrifuge in Toulouse. In a separate study, he will be investigating the impact of a nutritional countermeasure (whey protein and a salt) on changes in metabolism and skeletal muscle mass.

Dr Caulfield is the director of Technology Research for Independent Living Centre and Principal Investigator in CLARITY Centre at UCD and is currently leading the testing of novel Neuromuscular Electrical Muscle Stimulation Exercise technology on a parabolic flight campaign in Bordeaux, France.

Developed by Galway-based Biomedical Research (BMR), which supplies Slendertone and Neurotech, the technology works by stimulating the large muscles of the legs.  It has already produced impressive aerobic exercise training and muscle strengthening effects during ground-based studies, and could potentially be a way that astronauts could exercise aerobically in the confines of a spacecraft.  The parabolic flight campaign is an opportunity to test this technology in a zero gravity environment, similar to that experienced on the International Space Station.