European Space Agency partners with AECC University College

European Space Agency partners with AECC University College to test SkinSuit for potential use with Astronauts

Over the last two years, staff at AECC University College undertook some exciting research into an innovative solution to potentially reduce back pain that can affect astronauts. Funded by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Medicine Team at the European Astronaut Centre, this research involved 18 undergraduate Chiropractic students – all of whom agreed to stay overnight in our on-site Clinic to test out this solution first-hand.

Dr. Alexander Breen, Senior Research Fellow and Technology Lead for Quantitative Fluoroscopy, explains:

The Issue for Astronauts

“When astronauts go into space, there is very little gravity (microgravity) acting on their spines compared to the gravity we experience on Earth. We know that in microgravity, the discs in astronauts’ spines appear to swell and their spines elongate. As a result their spines typically expand in excess of what people do on earth when lying down because gravity isn’t compressing their spine.

“This expansion may reduce the natural curves of the spine causing the supporting ligaments and muscles to become weak which might contribute to astronauts’ experience of back pain, both during their time in space and on return to Earth.

“Astronauts also appear to be at a higher risk of experiencing disc herniation, where discs become displaced and press on spinal nerves causing pain.”

SkinSuit Solution

“Our research involved a special microgravity countermeasure SkinSuit, which is designed to reduce disc swelling.

“The SkinSuit, was developed at King’s College London in collaboration with ESA. It was inspired by the prototype Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit (GLCS) proposed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The SkinSuit uses a bi-direction elastic weave material, combined with distributive padding and stirrups to generate graded compression through the spine.

“It was already clear that the SkinSuit was having an effect from studies using simple height measurements of participants. We wanted to investigate this at a segment level: essentially we wanted to establish exactly where the effect was generated and how”.

SkinSuit

Application at AECC University College

“We invited 20 students to participate in this study: 18 of whom came from AECC University College.

“All of our participants were male, over 21 and not suffering with back pain. We asked them to stay two nights in our on-site Clinic, sleeping on a special hyper-buoyancy bed. The first night, they spent 12 hours in the bed, with a 15-minute toilet break at 5am.

“At the end of the 12 hours, we moved them to our Open Upright MRI scanner, ensuring they spent as little time as possible bearing weight and scanned them lying down. They then underwent a low dose video-fluoroscopy scan of their spine in motion lying down. Participants then went back for a second MRI scan, this time in a seated position in our MRI scanner and finally for a standing video-fluoroscopy scan.

“We repeated this two weeks later, however this time, at 5am they put on the SkinSuit after a comfort break. They then wore the suit for the next four hours. We measured the effects of wearing the SkinSuit by repeating the same MRI and fluoroscopy scans as before, to see if it reduced the swelling of the discs in the participants’ spines.”

Second Year Chiropractic student, Øystein Smidt, took part in the study. He shares how he felt about being involved:

“This was a fantastic research opportunity to be involved in. I’m really interested in the biomechanics of the spine and was very keen to take part in research with the European Space Agency. It was great to get a glimpse of high-level research and to play my part in growing our understanding of how we can combat changes to astronauts’ spines in microgravity.”

Why AECC University College?

Alex continues:

“We’re uniquely placed to run this study here at AECC University College. Firstly, we’re one of very few institutions in the UK to have an Open Upright MRI scanner. This meant we could measure the difference between standing up and lying down.

“We also have the unique advantage of having fluoroscopy systems on hand too. This, in conjunction with our special image tracking software, is a unique imaging service that was developed by Professor Alan Breen and his team in the Centre for Biomechanics Research at the AECC University College.

“The system, known as a Quantitative Fluoroscopy, takes low dose motion X-rays of the vertebrae of the lower back and measures their movement to find out, for example, if they are slack, tight or un-coordinated when a person bends.

“Having this machinery on-site meant the control we could have over participants; motion – and the tracking we were able to do – was really strong.”

What next?

“We have performed some preliminary analysis and the results appear promising. The next step is to complete the final analysis and to report back to ESA our findings. Then we can submit the work for publication in a scientific journal.

“The SkinSuits will now go back to the ESA so that further research and evaluation can be performed in order to determine whether this is a viable option for astronauts to wear regularly in space.”

Credits

This research project combined the expertise of the AECC University College with the problem highlighted by Kings College London and the European Space Agency, led to this work being performed by Professor Alan Breen and Dr. Alexander Breen, Dr. Philip Carvil and Dr. David A Green. The study also employed two undergraduate Research Assistants, Emilie Claerbout and Jade Merifield.