Astronauts train for years to earn the opportunity to live and study in the microgravity environment of space. But do they have the hearts for space travel?
New research shows that an astronaut’s heart tends to form a more spherical shape while in outer space, which could lead to cardiovascular problems during missions, RedOrbit reports. The study shines a brighter light on the physical dangers associated with space travel, and will help scientists develop exercise regimens to keep astronauts healthy during extended spaceflights — such as a trip to Mars.
The zero gravity environment of space is known to take a physical toll on astronauts. Previous studies have shown that prolonged space trips are associated with muscle loss, decline in bone density, vision anomalies and could lead to Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Now, with the new findings in hand, scientists plan to further study the cardiovascular conditions that astronauts experience in space.
Measuring the Heart
For the study, researchers trained 12 astronauts to scan their hearts with an ultrasound machine before, during and after a space mission. The data show astronauts’ hearts became more spherical by a factor of 9.4 percent, which gels with scientists’ mathematical models that predicted the extent of deformation.
Fortunately, for astronauts, their hearts returned to normal shape shortly after landing on Earth, but the results indicate the heart may not perform as efficiently in space. Researchers plan to develop models to simulate more specific heart conditions in microgravity, such as ischemic heart disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and valvular heart disease. Since the results matched the scientists’ predictions, they are confident that their models could be used here on Earth for clinical applications. The findings will be presented at the upcoming American College of Cardiology’s 63rd Annual Scientific Session.
Photo credit: NASA