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NIDCD Supports Neurolab: A Study of the Nervous System in Space

Astronauts from NASA's Neurolab mission.
The mission received support from NIDCD.

The NIH community had the opportunity to hear and meet astronauts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Neurolab mission on the space shuttle Columbia. Neurolab, a flight devoted to nervous system research, was launched on April 16, 1998, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. An overview of scientific experiments conducted on the recent mission was presented by Commander Richard A. Searfoss and five of his fellow crew members: Pilot Scott D. Altman; Mission Specialists Kathryn P. Hire, Richard M. Linnehan, and Dafydd Rhys Williams; and Payload Specialists Jay C. Buckey, Jr., and James A. Pawelczyk.

In addition to NASA, U.S. support for Neurolab comes from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and various agencies within the National Institutes of Health, including the Center for Scientific Review; the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute on Aging; the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. International support comes from French, Canadian, Japanese, and German scientific and health agencies and from member agencies of the European Space Agency, or ESA.

The prime objective for the Neurolab mission is to conduct research that will contribute to a better understanding of the human nervous system. Made up of the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and sensory organs, this system faces major challenges in microgravity. The nervous system controls blood pressure, maintains balance, coordinates movements, and regulates sleep—areas that are all affected by space flight.

The Neurolab flight is the third space shuttle mission dedicated to life science research but is the first mission that specifically focuses on how the neurological system responds to the challenges of space flight. For example, although scientists have been aware of the effect of space flight on bone loss and muscle loss for some time, the in-flight effects on nervous system functions, such as walking, balance, and blood pressure, are less well understood.

Since this flight focuses on basic research questions in neuroscience, the mission will provide a unique contribution to the study and treatment of neurological diseases and disorders. While the foremost goal of Neurolab is to expand our understanding of how the nervous system develops and functions in space, the research will also increase our knowledge of how this system develops and functions on Earth.

The scientists conducted their work in daily 12-hour shifts. Their program consisted of 26 human and nonhuman scientific experiments on how the nervous system functions in space. The experiments were conducted by Neurolab's specialized teams of investigators focusing on the following fields of study:

  • Aquatics, including investigations of the development and functioning of the gravity-sensing system in microgravity.

     

  • The autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary functions, such as heartbeat, respiration, and blood pressure.

     

  • Mammalian development, including studies of how the nervous system and muscles develop in the absence of gravity.

     

  • Neuronal plasticity, or how the brain changes, restructures itself, and adapts in space.

     

  • Neurobiology, including studies of how the environment affects nervous system development, especially the development of sensory neurons.

     

  • Sensory motor and performance, including studies of human spatial orientation and factors affecting our ability to perform complex tasks and to maintain balance in microgravity.

     

  • Sleep, including studies of sleep disruption, insomnia, and the effect of melatonin on sleep.

     

  • The vestibular system, or studies of balance involving spatial orientation, the inner ear, and its connections to the central nervous system.

     

Astronaut and Mission Specialist Richard M. Linnehan described Neurolab as "the most complicated mission NASA has ever flown." He narrated a 15-minute film describing work before, during, and after the mission that was shown to the NIH community. The movie showed the space shuttle launch and experiments conducted by crew members.

You can obtain information about Neurolab at http://quest.nasa.gov/neuron/

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