'Pillownauts' to help scientists understand adverse effect of space travel on human body

Scientists will deploy 'pillownauts' to examine a potentially serious adverse effect of space travel and weightlessness on the human body.

The University of Nottingham in the UK will carry out a 3-day bed rest study along with a 60-day bed rest study by the European Space Agency in France.

Bed rest is a tried and tested way to measure the effects of weightlessness on the human body which include bone and muscle mass loss, cardiovascular decline and impaired carbohydrate metabolism, which could pose a type 2 diabetes risk.

Many astronauts return to earth from space showing signs of pre-diabetes as weightlessness could lead to insulin resistance whereby the muscles and liver can not absorb glucose to help regulate blood sugar levels.

The study aims to determine how quickly prolonged bed rest could lead to insulin resistance, and identify the mechanisms behind the harmful effect.

Researchers have recruited 10 healthy male volunteers for the study, in the Medical School at the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham.

They will undergo tests for weight, muscle mass, liver and pancreatic function including MRI scans and muscle biopsies. They will then spend three days lying flat in bed in a slight head-down incline to mimic weightlessness in zero-gravity.

"There is a big push at the moment for a manned mission to Mars - a journey that would take as long as nine months with huge implications for the fitness of the astronauts," said Ian Macdonald, professor at University of Nottingham, PTI reported.

"Multiple scientific groups across NASA, the UK Space Agency and ESA, are working on many aspects of this physical deterioration in zero gravity and we hope  our contribution to this will be significant and possibly lead to further studies about insulin resistance over a longer time period," said Macdonald.

"Non-weight-bearing has a major negative impact on health, including reduced muscle mass and sensitivity to nutrition," said Paul Greenhaff, from University of Nottingham.