Australian researchers help astronauts tackle the health challenges of spaceflight

As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) progresses its ambitious Artemis spaceflight program, Australian researchers including the Kolling Institute’s Academic Director Professor James Elliott will tap into their scientific expertise to offer support.

Professor Elliott attended a recent event at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Texas, which brought together leading clinicians and scientists from around the world to discuss ways to reduce the spine injuries experienced by astronauts.

This group is exposed to a range of musculoskeletal conditions including spinal pain and muscle challenges due to the lack of gravity when in space.

Professor Elliott said we know that physical changes to the spine during spaceflight predispose astronauts to symptomatic spine pain and nearly 50 per cent of cases presenting to NASA’s musculoskeletal care team involve spine pain.

“The risk of spine pain during and after spaceflight raises operational issues and concerns for the long-term spine health of astronauts and others going into space,” he said.

“We are looking forward to sharing our expertise to help reduce injury, and improve the health and performance of astronauts.

“NASA has expressed an interest in our MuscleMap program, which is a revolutionary technique to assess whole-body skeletal muscle composition using high-resolution MRI.

“The program is generating a reference dataset of muscle composition across the lifespan to help diagnose pathology, gauge the effectiveness of interventions, and develop new health outcome measures.

“The normative data sets, developed by the MuscleMap program, could be used to compare data sets from the astronauts, so that when astronauts return from space, and they’ve experienced zero gravity exposure, you will be able to see what’s happened to their muscle system and what has changed to their skeletal muscle composition.

“The MuscleMap program could be an assessment tool to help improve their pain and performance when they’re in space, when they get home, and in preparation for future missions.

“We are very excited to be involved with this cutting-edge research which we hope will directly support astronauts and their long-term health."