With the first manned Mars One mission scheduled to take off in 2031, scientists are looking for more insight on how space travel will affect the human body over time. NASA had the perfect opportunity to dig deeper into this question by conducting a study between twin brothers, astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly.
The Twin Study, carried out by 10 individual investigations across 12 universities, compared data from before, during and after Scott Kelly's 340 days on the International Space Station with those of his identical brother Mark. This allowed scientists to compare how Mark's body changes on Earth to how Scott's body changes in space over time. Although preliminary results are just coming in, scientists are floored by the findings.
One of the first pieces of data to come in focused on the brothers' telomeres, which are found at the end of a chromosome to protect it from deteriorating. Surprisingly, Scott's telomeres grew to be longer in his white blood cells than his brother's. Telomere length is an important indication of health and longevity. Each time a cell divides the telomere shortens, a process associated with a higher risk of cancer and premature death.
With all the elements astronauts are exposed to in space, scientists were shocked to see that Scott's telomeres actually grew. Although it's still too early to diagnose the finding, scientists believe this happened because Scott was exercising more and eating healthier in space than Mark was on Earth.
Exercise also led to increased levels of a healing hormone in Scott, which he needs to help reverse the decline bone formation he experienced as a side effect of space travel. Other results include significant changes in gut bacteria and shifts in gene expressions associated with environmental shifts such as changes in diet and sleep habits.
The final papers detailing the entire study are not expected to be released for a few months as results are analyzed further and confirmed.
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