Space travel, not good for the gut

Washington: Space travel can disrupt the functioning of the robust cell barrier that lines our intestines to prevent bacteria, fungi, and viruses from invading the rest of our bodies, according to a study. Researchers from the University of California (UC), Riverside in the US noted that microgravity environment encountered in space has profound effects on human physiology, leading to clinical symptoms and illnesses including gastroenteritis.

They suggest that this can greatly increase the risk of infections, and chronic inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, and liver disease. Previous studies have shown that microgravity weakens the human immune system, in addition to increasing the intestinal disease-causing ability of food-borne bacteria such as salmonella.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, has implications for understanding the effects of space travel on intestinal function of astronauts in space, as well as their capability to withstand the effects of agents that compromise intestinal epithelial barrier function following their return to Earth.

"Our study shows for the first time that a microgravity environment makes epithelial cells less able to resist the effects of an agent that weakens the barrier properties of these cells," said Declan McCole, a professor at UC Riverside, who led the study. "Importantly, we observed that this defect was retained up to 14 days after removal from the microgravity environment," McCole said in a statement.

The permeability-inducing agent the team chose to investigate was acetaldehyde, an alcohol metabolite. McCole explained that alcohol compromises barrier function and increases gastrointestinal permeability in normal subjects and in patients with alcoholic liver disease.

The barrier function of the intestinal epithelium, McCole added, is critical for maintaining a healthy intestine. When disrupted, it can lead to increased permeability or leakiness, he said.

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