CASE Medicine
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NEWS: 10th Aug 2009
Research in Antarctica

//Dr Alex Salam reports on his research, direct from Concordia Station, Antarctica //

Biomedical research in space is expensive, logistically complicated and limited. If we confine ourselves to research on board the international space station alone, it will takes us decades to unravel the effects of microgravity, radiation and stress on the human body and mind. Research using earth based analogues is one way to bridge the gap between the scientific knowledge that we currently have, and the knowledge we critically need to efficiently minimise the physical and psychological risks to future interplanetary travellers. One such analogue is the Antarctic research station, Concordia. Concordia is unique in being possibly the most geographically isolated base on the planet, in addition to being the only international Antarctic station currently in operation.

Concordia is located at an altitude of 3233 meters on the high Antarctic plateau, at Dome Charlie. Dome Charlie is one of the driest, coldest and most inhospitable regions on the planet. Only two seasons exist, summer and winter. Summer lasts three months and winter nine. The average temperature during the winter is -60?C. Temperatures, though, drop as low as -84?C. The landscape is nothing but an endless flat, white wasteland. Needless to say, no wildlife can survive in such an extreme environment although the possibility that bacteria might prevail is currently being investigated.

During the nine month winter, the multinational crew experiences a prolonged period of darkness and confinement, without possibility of evacuation. The environmental and living conditions result in chronic hypobaric hypoxia (the altitude is approximately equivalent to 4000 meters at the equator), circadian rhythm and sleep derangements, impaired nutritional health and persistent psychological stress. Concordia is therefore an ideal location to research the effects of such disturbances on the human body and mind. Hence why, the European Space Agency has been implementing and sponsoring biomedical research at Concordia for a number of years.

Four projects are being implemented at Concordia this year: CHOICE, COMICS, BLUELIGHT and NIGHTSOCKS.

Spaceflight, and stress in general, result in immune system dysfunction, which in the context of a long duration mission to Mars could result in significant adverse health effects. However, at present, our understanding of the interaction between stress and the immune system is not detailed enough to predict the effects of long term space missions. In addition, in the future, lunar bases may provide sub-atmospheric pressure living conditions, for technical and financial reasons. CHOICE (Consequences of Long-term Confinement and Hypobaric Hypoxia on Immunity in the Antarctic Concordia Environment) therefore aims to delineate the combined effects of chronic stress and hypoxia on the immune system. The results of this study will also lead to a greater understanding of immune system dysfunction and infections in critically ill patients.

Whether astronauts succumb to the effects of a disturbed immune system also depends on their best and worse friends: bacteria. Microgravity and radiation alter the virulence of certain bacterial species. In addition, closed systems encourage the propagation of particular species above others and the exchange of genetic information by horizontal gene transfer, which may also lead to increased pathogenicity. For 9 months of year, Concordia receives no visitors or deliveries, and is essentially a closed system. COMICS (Concordia Microbial Dynamics) therefore aims to investigate the ecology of microbial communities in Concordia Station as well as diversity and genetic fluxes among the microflora associated with the human crew and with the confined environment of the station.

Astronauts regular suffer circadian rhythm disturbances and altered sleep-wake patterns, due to both a lack of environmental cues to synchronise the circadian system, and stress. This can be potentially dangerous in such a high risk environment. BLUELIGHT aims to readjust the circadian rhythms of the Concordia crew members during the polar winter by stimulating specific non-image forming retinal receptors with blue enhanced neon light, which more closely resembles the spectrum of natural daylight as compared to standard neon lights. This should result in improved sleep, mood and performance.

NIGHTSOCKS aims to provide a simple and cheap method to improve sleep, not only for individuals in extreme environments, but also for the many people worldwide who regularly suffer from disturbed sleep. The degree of vasodilation and heat loss in the hands and feet predicts the rapid onset of sleep. But this link may also be functional, i.e. inducing vasodilation in the peripheries may actually improve sleep. We?ll test this by wearing warm socks during sleep. It almost sounds too simple to work but so far, subjectively at least, it does seem to have an effect.

The results of research at Concordia could provide insights not only into space biology, but also many earth based disciplines such as critical care, sleep medicine, microbiology, infectious diseases and clinical psychology.

Dr Alex Salam

Research MD in Human biology and Medicine
European Space Agency
Concordia Station, Antarctica