Study Finds Long-Duration Stays in Space Impacts Sleep Patterns

A recent study has revealed that crews on long-duration space missions could suffer sleep deprivation and other neurological issues. Photo Credit: NASA

A recent study has revealed that crews on long-duration space missions could suffer sleep deprivation and other neurological issues. Photo Credit: NASA

A new study conducted by the staff at the Perelman School of Medicine, located at the University of Pennsylvania, indicates that crews on long-duration space flights – might want to bring along some Tylenol PM. The research was conducted via a 520-day simulated mission to Mars to determine how such an expedition would impact astronauts’ moods, sleep and performance. What scientists discovered indicated that astronauts sleep patterns will be significantly altered – an issue that NASA and any other space agency will have to address before sending crews to worlds deep in the inky blackness of space.

The findings were posted on line first in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and point to another issue that space agencies will have to contend with in terms of crewed missions to destinations such as the Moon, Mars or asteroids. Another study, this one funded by NASA, has determined that long-term exposure to cosmic radiation increases the likelihood astronauts will be affected by the Alzheimer’s disease.

“The success of human interplanetary spaceflight, which is anticipated to be in this century, will depend on the ability of astronauts to remain confined and isolated from Earth much longer than previous missions or simulations,” said David F. Dinges, PhD., professor and chief, Division of Sleep and Chronobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, and co-author of the study. “This is the first investigation to pinpoint the crucial role that sleep-wake cycles will play in extended space missions.”

Trips to destinations such as Mars have been estimated at taking as long as two years. Crews on those missions will have to face a great many hurdles and several recent studies have shown that the risk might be greater than originally anticipated. Image Credit: NASA

Trips to destinations such as Mars have been estimated at taking as long as two years. Crews on those missions will have to face a great many hurdles and several recent studies have shown that the risk might be greater than originally anticipated. Image Credit: NASA

The study was developed by the Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences and sponsored by the European Space Agency or ESA. The 520-day “mission” began on June 3, 2010. During the mission, the crew members were sealed into a 550-cubic-meter facility designed to mimic a spacecraft. They were then subjected to a number of tests and experiments to determine the effects of a prolonged mission.

To further simulate an actual mission, the “flight” was broken down into three phases: 250 days to get to “Mars”, 30 days on the surface and then another 240 days to get back to Earth.

“As the only U.S. research team involved with the Mars 520-day simulation, the study required international coordination and strong collaborations to ensure that the experiments were conducted in a thorough and rigorous manner,” said Jeffrey P. Sutton, MD, PhD, professor and director, Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, who was a senior author on the study.

During the mission crew members’ rest patterns, performance, psychological responses, fatigue, stress and mood changes were monitored to determine the impact of the prolonged stay in “space.”

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