CARDIOBREATH study aims to improve astronaut health

June 15, 2021

A new project led by researchers at Simon Fraser University will help astronauts overcome the challenges of working in harsh space environments—and potentially aid in their recovery plans.

SFU professor Andrew Blaber, director of SFU’s Aerospace Physiology Laboratory, will lead the CARDIOBREATH project team, which includes researchers from the University of North Dakota. The project is funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). 

The team will collect data on astronaut study participants using the CSA’s Bio-Monitor, also known as Astroskin™, to measure the impact of exercise on astronaut health before, during and after they return from the International Space Station.

Astronauts wear the Bio-Monitor shirt, which collects data on blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, and overall functioning of the heart muscle through electrocardiogram monitoring. The data collected will allow researchers to understand how the cardiovascular and respiratory systems interact with the blood pressure control system. 

“When we remove gravity, the body tends to trend towards an accelerated aging process,” says Blaber, a professor in SFU’s Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology (BPK). “Arteries stiffen, and astronauts experience changes in heart mass and lung function that can cause them to easily fatigue and faint when they return to Earth. We know the astronaut’s cardiovascular system deconditions over time and our study looks at how those changes are affected through exercise.”

Researchers will collect data from volunteer astronaut participants starting in 2022. The first tests, taken on Earth, measure how their systems respond to gravity while wearing the Bio-Monitor. The team will collect data on blood pressure and breathing control when the astronauts are lying down then stand up quickly, then engage in moderate exercise for 20 minutes, followed by a further five minutes of standing. 

In space, astronauts will be monitored at rest, during warm-up and while exercising for 20 minutes using a Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation Stabilization (CEVIS) space exercise bike. The exercise ground tests are repeated when the astronauts return to Earth. 

 “In the future we can use this Bio-Monitor and other systems to monitor astronauts in flight and help them stay healthy by understanding how their bodies adapt to weightlessness over time,” says Blaber. “Then, we can feed that data back into a model and develop an individualized recovery plan for their return to Earth.”

The data collected may be used to help develop therapy and recovery programs for astronauts to help them maintain their health and performance during future long-duration space missions. Their findings could help Canadian astronauts contributing to future missions to the moon such as NASA’s Artemis program, which is focused on lunar exploration.