An ongoing experiment at the International Space Station may help identify triggers for multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson’s disease by studying how nerve cells and immune cells interact when exposed to microgravity.
Using patient-derived cells, researchers will study the way nerve cells grow, survive, and change their gene activity (gene expression) due to gravity. Knowledge gained is expected to help scientists understand how nerve and immune brain cells interact with each other and in ways that damage the nervous system, leading to neurodegenerative diseases. (Gene expression is the process by which information in a gene is synthesized to create a working product, like a protein.)
The team will also investigate how living in space affects these same cells in astronauts, particularly during long-duration missions.
“This is the first time anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on such cells,” Andres Bratt-Leal, PhD, from Aspen Neuroscience and study leader, said in a NASA news story written by Charlie Plain.
“These cells are hard to study in a lab because of the way gravity influences them. The cool part is now we can do it in space!” he added.
NASA is interested in how spaceflight changes the immune system because some astronauts experience strange effects, including a temporary reactivation of dormant, or “sleeping,” viruses.
To understand why this happens, researchers are focusing on brain cells involved in Parkinson’s and MS. In both diseases, damage to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is thought to happen due to flaws in a person’s immune system.
Specifically, researchers will study two cell types — nerve cells (or neurons), and microglia, supportive immune cells that patrol the brain and defend it from threatening invaders like bacteria and viruses.
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