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B.C. researcher studying effects of space flight on the human body

Andrew Blaber will monitor 20 test subjects who will spend the next two months completely bedridden— a state that is meant to mimic the effects of space flight.

Ground personnel help International Space Station (ISS) crew member Scott Kelly of the U.S. to get out of the Soyuz TMA-18M space capsule after landing near the town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on March 2, 2016.

AFP PHOTO/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV

Ground personnel help International Space Station (ISS) crew member Scott Kelly of the U.S. to get out of the Soyuz TMA-18M space capsule after landing near the town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on March 2, 2016.

A Simon Fraser University researcher is taking an upside-down approach to better understand the impact of long-term space flight on the human body.

Andrew Blaber, who teaches kinesiology, and his team will monitor 20 test subjects who will spend the next two months completely bedridden with their heads below their feet at a slight inverted, six-degree angle— a state that is meant to mimic the effects of space flight.

The participants will carry out all their daily activities in bed, from reading and eating to washroom breaks and showering, while scientists study their physiology to determine how space flight affects astronauts on their return to Earth.

“It’s a lot to ask, but it is a shorter period than Scott Kelly spent in weightless conditions,” Blaber told Metro, referring to the NASA astronaut who returned to Earth last week after 340 days on the International Space Station. “At the end of the study, we should see all the same symptoms we’ll see with astronauts. They’ll have a hard time standing up and they’ll have posture problems.”

Blaber will be studying the link between the cardiovascular system and the system in charge of controlling the body's posture, with the goal of helping astronauts become better prepared for spending extended periods in outer space.

When people are weightless, Blaber said the link between the cardiovascular system and posture system appears to fail and the two “drift apart.” His team will be studying how the link is affected by space flight, as well as how the body recovers once astronauts return to earth.

“We can use that to develop exercises that the astronauts can do on the space stations to try to minimize that effect,” he said. “We can also design an exercise they can do to prepare them for coming back and to improve the rehabilitation process.”

The research will benefit more than just astronauts.

For patients who are bedridden for long periods of time, Blaber said the research may offer exercises that can help them in their recovery.

Many of the physiological changes astronauts experience in space are also similar to the aging process, he said.

“It’ll give us new clues on what’s happening in the aging process,” he said. “We can then come up with exercises that we can recommend people do to improve their active health for a longer period of time.”

The study is scheduled to begin in September and will take place in a specialized facility in France.

Blaber is carrying out his research with a grant from the Canadian Space Agency.

Researchers at the University of Ottawa are also studying the test subjects to learn more about how muscles respond to long periods of little to no activity, like when they don't have gravity to fight against.

Meanwhile, University of B.C. psychology professor Peter Suedfeld is studying the psychological impact of isolation on astronauts and others living or working in remote locations.

With files from The Canadian Press.