Professor Andrew Blaber (right) with MA student Malcolm Tremblay.

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SFU kinesiologist helps astronauts land safely on their feet

March 09, 2016
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By Ian Bryce

Simon Fraser University kinesiology professor Andrew Blaber wants astronauts to see fewer stars—when they arrive back on Earth, that is.

Astronauts returning to Earth frequently experience dizziness and light-headedness upon standing, which can lead to fainting and falls. Blaber is launching a new study investigating why astronauts faint and how to mitigate those circumstances.

From past research, Blaber has determined the fainting sensation is related to astronauts re-acclimatizing to Earth’s gravity.

“The way the brain and body interprets things when you remove the gravity is different,” he says. “Astronauts don’t use their legs that much in spaceflight—it’s mostly upper body activity. We found that returning astronauts have post-flight problems with cardiovascular and posture control.”

Conducting experiments in space is expensive says Blaber. Rather than examining humans in space, he’ll confine his subjects to bed rest—on inclined beds with their heads at an angle six degrees lower than their bodies.

The study is hardly a cushy job—the 20 subjects taking part in the study will be bedridden and unable to move for 60 days.

“Bed rest is a space analogue—it produces some of the same effects on the body as weightlessness in space,” says Blaber.

“What we’re going to do is a new test, which will allow us to assess whether or not interaction between the posture control and cardiovascular systems have become disconnected due to prolonged bed rest.”

Blaber received a $371,000 grant from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to study the effects of prolonged bed rest on cardiovascular and posture control.

Blaber’s research will benefit more than returning astronauts. Many of the physiological changes astronauts undergo in space are similar to problems related with aging and physical inactivity.

“One of the major failings in hospitalization and immobilization is that treatment focuses on the patient’s injury but does not prepare the person for exit,” says Blaber.

“If we understand how these systems work together, we can optimize it so that when a person comes out of bed rest we can quickly get them to a point where they can walk on their own as opposed to needing additional care.”