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Zero-G vanishing bone issue solved, says prof

Just tighten up that ISS treadmill bungee a bit

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American brainboxes funded by NASA say they have found a way to deal with one of the most severe problems of space flight - that is, the way one's bones gradually become as flimsy as dry twigs after long exposure to microgravity.

According to researchers at the University of Washington, the problem of bone loss in microgravity is very serious indeed. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) lose bone in key areas - for instance the hip, often one of the first parts of the human skeleton to break up under stress - ten times faster than post-menopausal women do.

But the Washington Uni boffins reckon they've cracked a therapy which can cope with the degradation caused by long-term spaceflight, which has a similar effect on the body to lengthy periods of bed rest.

"We have found that we can, on average, prevent bone loss in an important region of the hip with this intervention," says Dr Peter Cavanagh, orthopaedics and sports medicine prof at Washington Uni.

The intervention in question seems a bit of a mental head slap in some ways. Astronauts in space have to do lots of exercise on treadmills: the UW researchers' special sauce is simply that the spacefarers "are pulled towards the treadmill surface by a harness applying greater force than what the research team has previously measured during walking and running on the International Space Station treadmill".

Sounds pretty simple: that said, nothing's certain yet. The new plan of simply having astronauts hauled down onto the spacestation treadmill with extra force has so far only been tried out with volunteers on Earth undergoing constant bed rest, tilted head downwards by six degrees. Apparently this causes many of the same effects on the body as being in free fall. It seems that extra loading during treadmill exercise has prevented bone loss in four of five subjects under that regime, while six controls all suffered lowered bone mass.

Cavanagh believes his research may have relevance to Earthbound osteoporosis sufferers as well as astronauts in orbit. The next step. apparently, will be further tests this year at a NASA lab in Texas.

"This study takes us another step closer to learning how to maintain bone health during and after these space missions," says the prof. "Space exploration continues and, with it, our research agenda must keep pace to ensure the musculoskeletal health of our first interplanetary explorers - as well as the rest of us back here at home."

With manned expeditions to Mars set for the coming decades, and the chances strong that interplanetary ships may not have room for centrifugally-spun living areas, NASA needs to find ways for humans to stay healthy after long spells in microgravity. That problem may have been (partly) solved: but it's hardly the most pressing of the issues that must be faced before humanity travels beyond the Moon. ®

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