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Astronauts takes Waterloo research into orbit

From the International Space Station, astronauts are helping Waterloo researchers understand some of the mysteries of aging.

Richard Hughson checks blood pressure of astronaut Chris Hadfield

Professor Richard Hughson checks the blood pressure of astronaut Chris Hadfield prior to the BP Reg experiment. Photo credit: Derrick Piontek, CSA

Two experiments based at the University of Waterloo soared into space with astronaut Chris Hadfield, who became the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station during his five-month mission in 2013.

Hadfield and other astronauts from around the world have been working with Waterloo’s Richard Hughson, as Hughson examines how extended time in zero-gravity affects the circulatory system. Weightlessness speeds up changes that people normally experience as they age.

So far, the research underscores the importance of exercise.

“The biggest thing we’ve learned is you can’t maintain a sedentary lifestyle,’’ says Hughson, the Schlegel Research Chair in Vascular Aging and Brain Health. “You have to introduce physical activity.’’

Orbiting Earth for five months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Hadfield, 53, was a research subject for two experiments led by Hughson: VASCULAR and BP-Reg.

VASCULAR focuses on the carotid artery. As it loses elasticity with age, the vessel loses its ability to dissipate pressure from blood surging out of the heart. This strains delicate blood vessels in the brain.

The experiment, ongoing since 2009, studies the function of astronauts’ carotid and other arteries before, during and after their missions, and relates this to blood samples collected in space.

Dizzying problem

BP-Reg seeks to discover more about why some astronauts are prone to fainting when they return. Hadfield, the study’s first subject, inflated cuffs on his legs then rapidly deflated them during testing onboard the ISS.

“What we’re doing is essentially coming up with a way to cause the same changes in blood pressure in space as you get when you stand up on Earth,’’ says Hughson, a professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.

He has worked with about 21 astronauts over seven years to see what their experiences with blood circulation reveal about aging. A treadmill and machine for leg raises and bicep curls help the astronauts offset some of the effects of weightless living on the ISS.

Hughson is happy with his earthbound perspective on research involving the space station — “the biggest laboratory circling the world.’’

“It takes an awful lot of work to be an astronaut, but there’s also a lot of waiting and not flying,’’ he says. “I'm quite happy working here with our talented students and keeping two feet on the ground.”

For more on Professor Hughson's research and Hadfield's mission, see Conversation from Space: Chris Hadfield talks to the University of Waterloo from the ISS (VIDEO).