How Space is Changing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Research

Space research is behind numerous innovations, including GPS systems for navigation, air purifiers, and 3D printers. But it is not just technology that is getting better because of space flights. Zero gravity changes the human body, enabling research efforts to fight diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Multiple Sclerosis.

According to astronaut and researcher, Matthias Maurer, ”muscles and bones react differently in space than on Earth. This means that on the International Space Station (ISS), controlled experiments can be fast-tracked to study certain health conditions.”

Why is Space Conducive to Alzheimer’s Research?

Space research has helped develop numerous innovations and advance understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions.

Astronauts conduct research in space to better understand how fluids behave. Studying fluid dynamics in a gravity-free environment can provide an ideal environment to examine the formation of protein clumps, which are believed to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s why scientists believe conducting such experiments in space can be game changing:

  • On Earth, experiments must account for how the solid walls of a container may be affecting the process.
  • In the absence of gravity in space, water molecules can come together freely and form a free-floating sphere without need of a container.
  • The fluid dynamics of insulin dissolved in that sphere of water more closely mimic that of the fluid interfaces in the body.
  • Without the interference of Earth’s gravity, Alzheimer’s researchers have studied protein clusters that can cause neurodegenerative diseases.

RPI Researcher Invents a Ring-Sheared Drop to Study Alzheimer’s in Space

Researcher Amir Hirsa, PhD, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), has found a way 240 miles above the Earth’s surface to study the aggregation of proteins that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Hirsa and his team of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are studying this process through a series of experiments being conducted aboard the ISS. Studying how proteins clump together in space could help scientists understand the processes behind the development of these neurodegenerative diseases.

How Dr. Hirsa’s Experiment Works

Dr. Hirsa designed a device called a “ring-sheared drop” that can hold water in place while subjecting it to a shearing force, in which the top and the bottom of an object are forced in opposite directions. Shearing force mimics what happens in the body, as liquids move past each other in different directions and at different velocities. One of Hirsa’s recently published studies shows that shearing force causes aggregation of the insulin protein thought to be found in Alzheimer’s patients.

The ring-sheared drop is made up of rings on polar ends facing each other. A tube slowly releases the protein solution until it comes in contact with the opposite ring, and within one minute, a sphere held together by surface tension is formed.

A second ring then rotates at 30 revolutions per minute to model the shearing force that occurs in the human body. The research group has successfully run six test cases on the ISS since the experiment started in earnest in August 2021.

“Watching the protein go through its entire fibrillization process in space is the most exciting,” Hirsa said. “In the beginning, there’s nothing…we don’t see any clumps of fibers. At the very end, there are lots of fibrils. This is one of the best pictures for relating the plaques in the brain to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and all those kinds of amyloid diseases,” he said.

Once the insulin solutions complete the shearing process, they are frozen and prepped for their return from orbit, where the process of fibrillization (the formation of fibrils, which are very thin fibers) can be studied closely. The first specimens arrived via SpaceX rocket at the end of September 2021.

To perform the experiments, Dr. Hirsa does not go to space himself. The Johnson Space Center sends up instructions for crew members to operate the ring-sheared drop. Ten people from NASA, Teledyne-Brown Engineering, and RPI oversee the setup.

Once Dr. Hirsa publishes this study, he hopes to use it to model the flow of transport proteins and other processes in the body’s liquid interfaces, and he hopes doing so will make an impact on Alzheimer’s research.

Another Space Station Study Seeks Causes of Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis

Researchers in space also conducted a first-of-its-kind study to help patients with Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis on earth. The ISS experiment looked for what triggers these diseases by studying how nerve and immune brain cells interact.

The experiment, carried to the space station aboard the SpaceX CRS-18 cargo flight, looked at what is causing damage to the nervous system that is common in both illnesses and revealed how living in space affects similar cells in healthy astronauts.

The study was led by stem cell expert Andres Bratt-Leal of Aspen Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, and Valentina Fossati, a multiple sclerosis researcher with the New York Stem Foundation Research Institute in New York.

“This is the first time anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on such cells,” said Bratt-Leal. “These cells are hard to study in a lab because of the way gravity influences them. The cool part is now we can do it in space!”

Bratt-Leal and Fossati focused on the types of cells in the brain that seem to play key roles in the onset of both diseases. The first types were neurons and the cells that create them, which go on to form the body’s nerve network and allow the brain to monitor and control it. The second were microglia: immune cells that patrol the brain and try to defend the neurons from threatening invaders.

“The microglia are found in every part of the brain, and it’s really starting to look like neurodegenerative illnesses develop because the cells begin behaving improperly or overreacting,” said Fossati. “Misbehaving microglia may contribute to killing the neurons.” To find out whether that is the case, the researchers studied the growth of neurons and microglia from people with the diseases and compare them to healthy people of the same age.

Over the course of 30 days, Bratt-Leal and Fossati watched remotely to see how the neuron cells organized into balls called “organoids,” and how the microglia cells responded to and infiltrated them. After a month, the cells were returned to Earth, where researchers examined their shape and arrangement and tested their DNA to see if microgravity and space radiation exposure altered their gene expression.

The results of the ongoing research described could help scientists identify new ways to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases. We will provide updates on this and other similar research as they become available.

Do you or a Loved One Suffer from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Another Debilitating Disease?

If you or a loved one is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care or if you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), please call at one of the numbers below to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435

Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041

DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797


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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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