As reported recently in PhysOrg by NASA, researchers aboard SpaceX CRS-18 cargo flight are focusing on what triggers Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, both neurodegenerative diseases. Researchers suspect that the damage to the brain and nervous system may be caused by a malfunction of the immune system.
The study is headed by a multiple sclerosis researcher and a stem cell expert. In fact, he commented that it is difficult to study these cells in a laboratory because they are influenced by gravity. Now they will see what happens when gravity is removed. They will be learning more about the function of the cells.
The researchers will:
- Observe the interaction of nerve and immune brain cells
- Observe the cause of damage to the central nervous system
- Look for commonalities in both diseases
- Reveal the effects on similar cells of healthy astronauts living in space
Notably, this will be the first time the effects of spaceflight and microgravity will be studied. NASA is especially interested in learning the reason for the unusual effects experienced by a few of the astronauts after their missions. These effects include activation (temporarily) of dormant viruses.
Brain Cells That Play A Key Role
There are two types of brain cells that appear to play a major role in both diseases. One type would be neurons together with the cells that are responsible for their creation. These cells form the nerve network in the body. The brain is then able to monitor the network and control it.
The second type of brain cells is known as microglia. These cells are constantly on the look-out for any invaders that might threaten the neurons.
The researchers report that their observations led them to believe that it is the microglia, found in every area in the brain, that may be causing the death of neurons.
An Innovation Out of Necessity
The next step for the researchers will be to analyze the microglia and neuron growth in people who have the diseases. These results must be compared against people who are the same age but do not carry the disease. However, a problem arose because the cells are situated in the brain and not easily extracted.
In light of the risks involved, the study team was able to develop new technology in the lab that creates microglia and neurons using the patient’s skin cells and those of healthy donors.
Lab in a Shoebox
The cells are presently traveling on the space station inside the CubeLab, which is about the size of a shoebox.
The CubeLab contains:
- a camera
- a pair of containers with 96 chambers
- a “well plate” containing cells of an age-matched healthy donor and those of a Parkinson’s patient
- a second well plate with a multiple sclerosis patient’s cells and those of a healthy donor
The cells are fed liquid food by way of a pump and tubing system that automatically sends the liquid into the chambers.
The research team has set its sights on identifying new treatment for multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
Learning how radiation and microgravity affect nerve cells will improve methods of protecting future astronauts on long missions.
Have you ever thought about traveling on Space X?