The Vascular Series: Studying heart health in space

Health Science

The Vascular series groups three Canadian science experiments: Vascular, Vascular Echo and Vascular Aging. It studies the effects of weightlessness on astronauts' blood vessels and hearts on board the International Space Station (ISS).

Background

Our cardiovascular system has evolved to suit life on Earth. The heart pumps blood through the arteries, providing oxygen to our cells throughout the body. The absence of gravity in space disturbs this system.

Astronauts do not have to work as hard to move around the Station. An earlier Canadian study called Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Control on Return from the International Space Station (CCISS) confirmed that spaceflight greatly reduces heart rate and level of physical activity.

To deepen our understanding of the effects of microgravity on the cardiovascular system, the Vascular and Vascular Echo studies use blood tests and ultrasound technology to examine astronauts' blood vessels.

A follow-on study, Vascular Aging, will look at other issues known to pose risks to astronauts' health, like radiation and insulin resistance, a precursor of Type 2 diabetes. Studying the responses of the cardiovascular system in space better equips us to understand how our arteries age here on Earth.

Using Space to Fight Cardiovascular Disease with Astronaut Tim Peake

During a six-month space mission, an astronaut's cardiovascular system can age by up to 10 or 20 years. ESA astronaut Tim Peake took part in the Canadian experiment Vascular Echo aboard the ISS to examine changes in heart and blood vessels of astronauts in space. (Credits: Canadian Space Agency, NASA)

Transcript

Objectives

Each of the Vascular studies looks more closely at heart health in space to:

  1. Vascular
    • track changes in blood vessels and monitoring heart function
    • observe how arteries react to changes in blood pressure and to reduced physical activity
    • measure blood markers related to expected vascular changes
  2. Vascular Echo
    • observe how arteries and the heart react to changes in blood pressure
    • evaluate the efficiency of a countermeasure by testing whether a leg cuff can reduce the excess amount of blood in the upper body
    • determine whether blood flow after exercise is changed by space flight
    • associate certain warning signs in the blood with early arterial stiffness
    • find an easier, less invasive way than ultrasound to measure changes in arterial elasticity
    • learn more about recovery up to one year upon the astronauts' return
  3. Vascular Aging
    • identify the specific cause of increased arterial stiffness in astronauts
    • confirm if and when insulin resistance develops during a space mission
    • clarify the effect of radiation exposure on cardiovascular health
    • track the recovery process after return

 Impacts on Earth

Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death on Earth. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, 9 out of 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease or stroke, including lack of physical activity.

Vascular's results suggest that a daily session of aerobic (cardio) exercise alone is not sufficient to counteract the effects of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.

Arterial stiffness, a condition that occurs when arteries become less elastic, influences how hard the heart has to work to pump blood through the body. Stiffening of the arteries can increase the risk of cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes.

How it works

  1. Vascular
    Nine astronauts took part in this study.
    • The participants underwent blood tests before, during, and after their missions to collect information that can be linked to other recorded effects.
    • Researchers took ultrasound images before the astronauts' departures to measure the elasticity of their arteries, and compared the images to others taken upon return.
  2. Vascular Echo
    Nine astronauts are participating in this study.
    • The participants undergo blood tests before, during, and after their missions.
    • Resting ultrasound imaging is performed before, during, and after the flight.
    • The participants do simple exercises during spaceflight while an ultrasound device, strapped to their thigh, measures changes in blood flow.
    • Astronauts wear an inflatable cuff that monitors blood pressure. Its results will be compared to the ultrasound data to determine if blood pressure can be used as a more efficient indicator of arterial change.
  3. Vascular Aging
    Nine participants will take part in this study.
    • Astronauts will undergo blood tests before, during, and after spaceflight.
    • Resting ultrasound scans of the head, neck, torso, arms, and legs will be taken before, during, and after the mission.
    • Astronauts will wear a smart shirt, which monitors their heart rate, activity level, and breathing rate.
    • Researchers plan to monitor how effectively insulin works in astronauts' bodies by administering a sugary drink and monitoring the blood sugar.

 Results

The Vascular experiment detected the following changes:

  • After 6 months in space, the astronauts' arteries stiffened by 17% to 30%, which could be compared to 10 to 20 years of normal aging on Earth.
  • Astronauts' bodies do not process glucose normally. They develop insulin resistance, which may increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
  • Both female and male astronauts' arteries were affected, but the negative effect of this insulin resistance was greater in men.

Vascular's findings suggest that an astronaut's daily exercise routine was not enough to counteract the effects of sedentariness caused by weightlessness on the body.

Arterial stiffness occurs with aging as the vessels lose their elasticity. Blood pressure increases, and the heart must work harder to pump blood. Over the long term, these changes can lead to hypertension, increasing the risk for heart disease.

Timeline

  1. Vascular was conducted between and .
  2. Vascular Echo began collecting data in , and should reach completion in .
  3. Data collection for Vascular Aging is scheduled to begin in .

Astronaut Tim Peake Participates in the Vascular Echo Study

In May 2016, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake had an ultrasound of his leg onboard the ISS to help collect data for the Vascular Echo study. (Credit: NASA)

Research Team

Dr. Richard Hughson of the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging is the principal investigator for the Vascular studies.

His co-investigators for each study are:

  1. Vascular
    • Dr. Kevin Shoemaker, University of Western Ontario
    • Dr. Philippe Arbeille, Université François-Rabelais de Tours
    • Dr. Marc-Antoine Custaud, University of Angers, Angers, France
    • Dr. James Rush, University of Waterloo
    • Danielle Greaves, M.Sc., University of Waterloo
  2. Vascular Echo
    • Dr. Philippe Arbeille, Université François-Rabelais de Tours
    • Dr. Kevin Shoemaker, University of Western Ontario
    • Danielle Greaves, M.Sc., University of Waterloo
  3. Vascular Aging
    • Dr. Kevin Shoemaker, University of Western Ontario
    • Danielle Greaves, M.Sc., University of Waterloo
    • Dr. Philippe Arbeille, Université François-Rabelais de Tours
    • Dr. Martina Heer, University of Bonn
    • Dr. Carole Leguy, German Aerospace Center
    • Dr. Laurence Vico, University of Lyon

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