The NASA Twins and Medicine


“What happened to the identical twin who was sent into space” may sound like the beginning of a joke that’s awaiting a bad punchline, but it’s in fact a question awaiting an answer that could change the course of human history as well as the medical industry as we know it.  And, thanks to the NASA twins, we’re one step closer to having that answer.

The Nasa twins are Scott and Mark Kelly, and between 2015 and 2016 these identical brothers had two completely different lives.  That is to say, one was enjoying the perks of life on Earth while the other was in space under NASA’s supervision, aboard the International Space Station.  And, what NASA was able to discover means a lot in terms of the future of space exploration as well as space medicine. 

Why Twins?

NASA decided to conduct this experiment on identical twins in order to examine the ways in which space changes the human body.  Besides monitoring things like digestion and vital signs, NASA explored the ways in which time in space affects the DNA of a person.  Because the twins share the same genetic makeup, NASA was able to compare the affects of time spent in space with the affects of time spent on Earth.

Because of this study, NASA has a much clearer understanding of how space affects human genomics.  It also has a stronger grasp on the ways in which space travel affects human bodily systems that are required to function properly in order for us to maintain our health. 

What the Researchers Discovered

What’s most important to note is that the researchers found that space does indeed change both bodily systems and genomics, but these changes are only temporary.  That’s good news as having our bodies permanently altered by the environment in space could make space travel in general less appealing.  This also demonstrates that the human body is incredible in its ability to adapt to new environments.  Quickly, Scott, the twin who was in space, physically adapted to his environment, and once he returned home, his body quickly adapted back without any negative long-term effects.

One finding that researchers noted was that being in space changes the balance of bacteria in the gut.  Additionally, the carotid artery in the neck became thicker, meaning that fluids in the head moved around in a different manner.  This artery is responsible for maintaining equilibrium and strengthening vision among other things.

What’s perhaps more fascinating is that the telomeres, which are caps that protect chromosomes, lengthened during Scott’s time in space.  These protective caps get shorter as we age, which increases the rate at which the body ages.  So, the caps lengthening means that the aging process slows down when we’re in space.  However, once Scott returned, the caps returned to their previous length.

What This Means to the Medical Industry

Space medicine is a relatively new term that refers to the way in which we treat medical issues while in space.  This study was performed in space, meaning that the researchers were able to monitor and address certain issues away from Earth.  This is promising as the future of space travel relies heavily on the ability to treat health-related issues while on a spacecraft.

What This Means for the Future of Space Travel

The research behind the study emphasized that these findings do not indicate that we are closer to colonizing space bodies.  However, it does show that humans can likely  physically adapt to space conditions and that they can return to their normal state once they return to Earth.  Because of the specifics of the findings, we have a much broader understanding of how space affects the human body over a long period of time.

What This All Means…

The NASA twins have provided us with incredible insight into how space travel affects the human body.  There’s no doubt that this information will be used to further refine space medicine practices.  And, perhaps, this study will help further the race to colonize Mars.

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