Spaceflight Could Put Astronauts At Increased Risk For Developing Diabetes

Mice flown into space returned to earth with warning signs of liver disease, according to a new study conducted by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Researchers believe the study could have big implications for long-term flights to space and future expeditions to Mars.

After mice spent nearly two weeks aboard a space shuttle, liver samples were collected from them upon their return. Researchers discovered that the time in space seemed to activate certain liver cells that might induce scarring and cause long-term harm to the organ.

"Prior to this study we really didn't have much information on the impact of spaceflight on the liver," said Karen Jonscher, PhD, lead author of the study. "We knew that astronauts often returned with diabetes-like symptoms, but they usually resolved quickly."

Impact of spaceflight

Scientists have long studied the effects of spaceflight on human bone, muscle, brain and cardiovascular functioning. They are now shifting their attention to astronauts that spent time in space and developed diabetes-like symptoms. Researchers believe a link may exist between microgravity and metabolism, and the liver may suffer the consequences of this space environment.

When the mice returned from their travels to space, researchers discovered increased fat storage in the liver, signs of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and early signs of fibrosis - a progressive after-effect of NAFLD.

"It generally takes a long time, months to years, to induce fibrosis in mice, even when eating an unhealthy diet," said Jonscher. "If a mouse is showing nascent signs of fibrosis without a change in diet after 13 ½ days, what is happening to the humans?"

With NASA interested in conducting longer missions to space - including year-long expeditions to Mars in the future - researchers admit more work needs to be done to determine the potential ill effects of spaceflight on humans.

Source: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

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