Nov. 17, 2022

Canada’s first space health research symposium launches at UCalgary

Gathering of global researchers will help astronauts and Earthlings alike, say organizers
Expedition 59 flight engineer David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency participates in a six-and-a-half hour spacewalk in April 2019. NASA

Space may be the final frontier, but if humans are to boldly go where no one has gone before, the real exploration must begin here on Earth.

Specifically, researchers are investigating what space travel means to human health – and here on the home planet, UCalgary is poised to become a global hub for space health breakthroughs, with research taking place on everything from bone loss to how the brain responds to spaceflight.

“We are on the cusp of a major shift right now in space travel, and in addition to NASA missions, we have commercial flights happening,” says Dr. Steven Boyd, PhD, director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine.

Steven Boyd, director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health

UCalgary files

“The number of people traveling to space is going to dramatically increase over the next few years, and on top of that, they are looking at further-distance destinations like the moon and Mars, so we have got to nail the health of astronauts, so we can understand the implications of these flights on the human body.”

Inaugural Canadian Space Health Research Symposium

On Nov. 17 and 18, the University of Calgary hosted the first-ever Canadian Space Health Research Symposium, where leading national and international scientists investigating the effects of spaceflights on human health gathered to share their research findings and ideas.

The symposium was organized by the Canadian Space Health Research Network (CSHRNet), a collaborative research network for the space health community in Canada that was founded by Dr. Giuseppe Iaria, PhD, director of NeuroLab and professor of cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Psychology.

University of Calgary professor Giuseppe Iaria speaks at an event announcing a research collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency. The study investigated how reduced gravitational forces affect astronauts’ ability to find their way around.

UCalgary files

Panelists included former Canadian astronaut and UCalgary Chancellor Emeritus, Robert Thirsk; Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) president Michael Strong; NASA element scientist Kris Lehnhardt, and deputy chief medical officer of First Nations Health Authority Nel Wieman.

University of Calgary President Ed McCauley offered opening remarks and a welcome from the host university. A detailed program of the symposium is available online at the CSHRNet website.

Survival in space can make life better at home

Event organizer Iaria, who is also leading a Canadian Space Agency-funded project aiming at investigating the neurological effects of spaceflight on astronauts, says the ideas and research shared in Calgary may some day be helping humans survive on Mars and beyond, but the knowledge is also invaluable for those living on Earth.

“Very few people go to outer space, so why do we do this? Because it can help people here on Earth, and what we learn on Earth can then help astronauts as well. As an example, learning how to be effective in health-care delivery in remote and isolated locations on Earth is definitely going to help how we will deliver health care while traveling to Mars,” says Iaria.

“There is so much we can learn on Earth that can be applied to space travel, and the other way around. The symposium brings together people interested in health research for the benefit of people both on Earth and space.”

Leigh Gabel, assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and member of the McCaig Institute.

UCalgary files

Accelerated understanding

Boyd, who together with colleague Dr. Leigh Gabel, PhD, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and a member of the McCaig Institute and the Alberta Children’s Research Institute, shared research on adaptation of bone microarchitecture in long-duration space flight and recovery upon return to Earth, says space health research benefits both astronauts and people back home.

“We can learn a lot about health on Earth through space research, and I can take a particular example, where I study bone and with astronauts, things happen over six months in space that would take a decade on Earth,” says Boyd, who also holds a joint position at the Schulich School of Engineering and the Faculty of Kinesiology.

“Space accelerates our understanding of health on Earth.”

Groundbreaking UCalgary research

Along with Boyd’s groundbreaking work on bone loss in astronauts and Iaria’s innovative research on brain changes following spaceflights, UCalgary researchers who shared key insights at the symposium included:

  • Spinal cord injury as a ground-based analog of bone loss in microgravity (Dr. Brent Edwards, PhD, Faculty of Kinesiology and Schulich School of Engineering)
  • Stress and how it can be transmitted to others (Dr. Jaideep Bains, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine, research director, Hotchkiss Brain Institute)
  • Spaceflight-related neuroplastic adaptations and wayfinding in astronauts (Ford Burles, postdoctoral scholar, Department of Psychology)

Hub of space health research

Among the expert sessions were: Skeletal effects of microgravity; Cardiovascular health in space; Effects of spaceflight on the immune system; Stress, coping and post-flight experience changes; and Brain and sensory mechanisms affected by spaceflight.

The symposium was described as “an opportunity for the dissemination of scientific work, the development of collaborative projects, networking, and the engagement of trainees in human health research programs.” Iaria says this first symposium also helped establish the host university’s reputation as a hub for space health research.

“There is an opportunity to grow our community and  space health research in Canada, and the symposium is aiming to do that,” explains Iaria.

“Space health research should be for many, not for a few – the major objective of the symposium is to bring the space health research community together, and the University of Calgary is playing a key part of that.”

Steven Boyd is a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) in the Department of Radiology and holds a joint position at the Schulich School of Engineering and the Faculty of Kinesiology. He is the director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health at the CSM, and the Bob and Nola Rintoul Chair in Bone and Joint Research, as well as the McCaig Chair in Bone and Joint Health.

Giuseppe Iaria is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Arts and an adjunct professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Alberta Children’s Research Institute, and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the CSM.

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