Humans are terrestrial creatures. We adapted and evolved to the environments of Earth, and, needless to say, things can get complicated for us when we venture beyond our atmosphere. In addition to the myriad other concerns astronauts have, they also have a high chance of developing kidney stones during space travel.
Thankfully, looking at mice in space has given them clues as to why this is.
A painful distraction
NASA reported that more than 30 astronauts have had kidney stones on return to Earth. One astronaut in orbit even almost had to cut their mission short because the pain from their kidney stones was so bad.
“The pain you get when you’re passing a kidney stone is the worst pain you can experience,” said Dr. Stephen Walsh, clinical senior lecturer in experimental medicine and honorary consultant in nephrology at University College London.
Researchers aboard the International Space Station looked at mice in space to uncover what was behind these cosmonaut kidney stones.
Why are kidney stones so common in space?
Spending time in reduced gravity is linked to a decrease in bone density. The lost bone calcium gets into the blood, and this could be the cause of astronauts’ kidney stones. This is only one theory as to how this happens though.
Looking at the mice in the ISS, it appears that cosmic radiation could also play a big role. There is early evidence that shows this and gamma radiation, as well as high-energy particles, cause damage to the DNA in the kidney of the space mice. The mice’s kidneys also had low levels of transportation of sodium, calcium, and phosphate ions, and their kidneys’ cells’ mitochondria — the energy producer of cells — were also damaged. This is critical for producing energy for the kidneys to function.
While research is ongoing, these preliminary findings show the issues that doctors and astronauts need to address for improving the health of our final frontiersmen and women, thanks to the mice aboard the ISS.