KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (FL), November 2, 2023 – To unlock insights into protecting our brains from cognitive decline, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego is turning to the International Space Station (ISS). The team’s investigation to probe the effects of space conditions on the human brain is poised to launch to station on SpaceX’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission. The ISS National Laboratory®-sponsored project will inform potential applications for treating and preventing late-onset diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The research team will leverage the unique space environment to study how microgravity, radiation, and other factors influence the brain’s aging process at the molecular level. Employing brain organoids as surrogates, these miniature, lab-grown brain models derived from human stem cells will serve as windows into the human brain’s response to space-related stressors.
Previous investigations by UC San Diego that used brain organoids onboard the ISS have hinted at accelerated molecular aging and maturation in the space environment. This newest cutting-edge experiment aims to unravel further the mysteries behind cognitive health as part of the team’s broader search for new ways to protect the brain, said project leader Alysson Muotri, director of UC San Diego’s Sanford Stem Cell Education and Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research Center.
“It is hard to mimic the space environment, especially microgravity, on Earth for several days, so the ISS is the only option for our experiments,” said Muotri, a professor in the departments of pediatrics and cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego. “Our previous experiments suggested accelerated aging at the molecular level in microgravity. We want to understand this mechanism and provide ways to protect the human brain against cognitive decline.”
This investigation is part of an ongoing program of human biology studies from the Sanford Stem Cell Institute. The experiment is done in an automated microfluidic platform, requiring minimal astronaut time, and will run for 30 to 40 days. While the experiment is on station, the researchers will collect data about organoid growth and cell death and document changes the brain models experience in response to the space environment. Upon return to Earth, the research team will study the brain models’ cellular activities and collect gene expression data, which will help them understand how the organoids responded to spaceflight.
The findings could benefit future astronauts and inform how we protect the human brain against cognitive decline. “Understanding the impacts of space travel on the human body is a crucial need for humanity’s travel through the cosmos,” said Erik Viirre, professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego and co-investigator for the project. “What will happen to our brains, and how do we make them more resilient to microgravity exposure?”
However, Muotri said the biggest impact will be on modeling late-onset neurological conditions. Improved modeling could help lead to new treatments for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative conditions on Earth.
SpaceX CRS-29 is targeted for launch no earlier than November 5, 2023, at 10:01 p.m. EST. This mission will include multiple ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads. To learn more about the ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads research on this mission, please visit our launch page.
Download a high-resolution for this release: Neuron and Astrocytes from Human Brain Organoids
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About the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory: The International Space Station (ISS) is a one-of-a-kind laboratory that enables research and technology development not possible on Earth. As a public service enterprise, the ISS National Lab allows researchers to leverage this multiuser facility to improve life on Earth, mature space-based business models, advance science literacy in the future workforce, and expand a sustainable and scalable market in low Earth orbit. Through this orbiting national laboratory, research resources on the ISS are available to support non-NASA science, technology and education initiatives from U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space™ (CASIS™) manages the ISS National Laboratory®, under Cooperative Agreement with NASA, facilitating access to its permanent microgravity research environment, a powerful vantage point in low Earth orbit, and the extreme and varied conditions of space. To learn more about the ISS National Lab, visit www.ISSNationalLab.org.
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