Life Lines by Dr. Dolittle

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Preventing muscle wasting in space?


Photo of Astronaut Robert Overmyer from NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.

I recently went on a trip to visit the Endeavour space shuttle currently on display in Los Angeles. Seeing the shuttle up close brought back memories of watching the space shuttle launches on TV and the childhood dream of visiting other planets…a dream that also inspires Hollywood to continue to produce movies and TV shows about space exploration. Turns out, The Martian movie may soon become reality. In fact, NASA is working towards sending astronauts to Mars sometime in the 2030’s. Aside from the technological challenges of sending a shuttle to Mars with enough fuel to come home, such a long journey comes with human challenges such as maintaining physical and mental health as well as how to deal with radiation exposure in deep space.

In a study conducted in 2010 at Marquette University, researchers predicted that muscle loss alone would be a pretty big deal as the astronauts could lose more than 40% of their strength, even if they exercised regularly. Their results were published in The Journal of Physiology. This means by the time they arrived at Mars, they would have a hard time simply moving around. Even more worrisome is the long trip home, after which they may experience difficulty navigating their spacecraft. This is why astronauts in space try to exercise on a regular basis. The International Space Station, for example, has stationary bicycles, treadmills and equipment for weight training exercises.

I was thinking of the issue of muscle wasting when I came across an article published by researchers at Yamaguchi University in Japan who were interested in whether a dietary antioxidant could help reverse muscle loss that was caused by immobilization. Their results were published this month in Physiological Reports. In this study, the team examined a carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin which has known antioxidant properties. They fed astaxanthin or a placebo to rats for 24 days. Fourteen days into the diet, they immobilized one leg of the animals in a plaster cast. Remarkably, rats fed astaxanthin developed less muscle wasting than those fed a placebo.  Their findings also showed that the carotenoid prevented oxidative stress. Aside from obvious applications in treating people with broken bones, I wonder if astaxanthin might help astronauts?

You can see a prototype of a plane that just might fly on Mars here.


Shibaguchi T, Yamaguchi Y, Miyaji N, Yoshihara T, Naito H, Goto K, Ohmori D, Yoshioka T, Sugiura T.  Astaxanthin intake attenuates muscle atrophy caused by immobilization in rats. Physiological Reports. 4(15). August 2016. DOI: 10.14814/phy2.12885

Fitts RH, Trappe SW, Costill DL, Gallagher PM, Creer AC, Colloton PA, Peters JR, Romatowski JG, Bain JL, Riley DA. Prolonged space flight-induced alterations in the structure and function of human skeletal muscle fibres. The Journal of Physiology. 588(18):  3567–3592, 2010.

Categories: Diet and Exercise, Space Physiology

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