Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Using Digital Technologies to Improve Muscle Health in Astronauts

  Henry Cope (2019 cohort)

Due to the effects of space radiation and altered gravity, the human body undergoes many physiological changes during spaceflight, including muscle atrophy which can result in the loss of muscle mass, performance and endurance [1].

Although natural, this adaption poses some problems. One such problem is the risk of impaired performance in mission critical tasks, which NASA has identified as a key risk to the future of human spaceflight [2]. This impaired performance could manifest itself in the form of injury to the astronauts, which may prove hard to remedy with the limited medical resources available on spaceflight missions. Aside from locomotion, muscles also act as large protein stores containing amino acids which can be broken down in times of fasting, infection and disease to provide energy to help other vital organs, so a loss of muscle mass could negatively affect the long-term health of astronauts. The survival of humankind may depend on our ability to inhabit other planetary bodies such as Mars, so it is important that astronauts remain healthy in order to successfully complete the first steps of extra-terrestrial colonisation.

In addition to posing an issue in spaceflight, muscle atrophy is also a prevalent problem for patients on Earth who may experience it due to different causes such as inactivity, ageing (Sarcopenia), and muscular dystrophy. Advancements in the understanding of mechanisms underlying this atrophic response may aid the development of new countermeasures for both patients on Earth and astronauts in space.

Objective 1: Capturing and Analysing Animal Model Data

As part of this research, computer vision software will be developed and tested on videos of C. elegans in a microfluidics device [3] on Earth. The software will be able to analyse the videos and obtain data on muscle strength as well as other phenotypic information relating to locomotion, organ-level features and whole-body features.

If all goes to plan, videos of spaceflown worms in the microfluidics device will be captured during a two-week mission onboard the ISS. The software will then be used to analyse the videos and measure the changes in the muscle strength of individual worms throughout the experiment. This extracted strength data can then be correlated with the changes in gene expression, and by looking at worms with genetic interventions, it might be possible to establish causal relationships between omics (genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics) data and phenotypic data indicative of atrophy.

Objective 2: Analysing Human Data from an Immobilisation Study

Bioinformatics methods will used to analyse data from a human immobilisation study at Royal Derby Hospital. More specifically, gene expression changes in the human subjects will be correlated with muscle changes. Potentially, data from other similar studies can also be brought into the analysis, to increase the sample size.

Objective 3: Comparing the Human Data and Animal Data

After the two prior objectives have been completed, the changes in C. elegans and humans will be compared, to see whether or not there is a link between human personal data predictive of muscular performance and C. elegans personal data predictive of muscle performance. If the effect of spaceflight on the animal model and the personal predictors of decline are similar to those in humans from the immobilisation study, interventions can be made during future spaceflown animal studies to see if muscle deterioration can be decelerated. The computer vision software developed during this project can then be reused for measuring strength data in order to assess the effectiveness of the interventions in animal models.


  1. Buckey, J. C. Space physiology. Oxford University Press (2006).
  2. Ploutz-Snyder, L., Ryder, J., English, K., Haddad, F. & Baldwin, K. Evidence Report: Risk of Impaired Performance Due to Reduced Muscle Mass, Strength, and Endurance. HRP-47072. NASA Evidence Report. (2015).
  3. Rahman, M. et al. NemaFlex: A microfluidics-based technology for standardized measurement of muscular strength of: C. elegans. Lab on a Chip 18, 2187–2201 (2018).