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Being a Lazy Bum for Science

Everybody has mornings when they don’t feel like getting out of bed. But how about staying there for three months? That's what European Space Agency volunteers in Toulouse are doing in the Long-Term Bed Rest Study.

For some it would be a dream come true: staying in bed for three months straight; never getting out of a prone position; watching TV, reading or chatting on the phone; your only responsibility, undergoing medical test so doctors can see how your body is reacting to this enforced laziness.

For others, it would be living nightmare: three months stuck in a clinic; cut off from the outside world; forced into inactivity as muscles atrophy and boredom threatens to bring on insanity.

Still, 11,000 euro for three months of laying around might not be a bad deal.

Fourteen volunteers at a laboratory of the European Space Administration (ESA) in Toulouse are undergoing just such an experience. It’s the second phase of an experiment the ESA is carrying out to investigate how the human body reacts to long periods in space, when conditions of microgravity cause physiological changes in the body that can affect the health and performance of astronauts.

No Sitting Up!

The subjects are spending three months in beds that are inclined downwards at a slope of 6 degrees, which scientists have found best simulates the effect of changed gravity, similar to what astronauts experience in space. Volunteers must stay in a prone position. Even sitting up is taboo. Standing up is unthinkable.

During the experiment, all the activities of daily life, including meals and hygiene, are carried out in the head-down tilt position. A special bathroom enables the subjects to take a daily shower while flat on their backs, or stomachs. Each subject has a personal television and can make phone calls, although no visitors are allowed during the three-months.

"Lying down induces several physiological changes," said Anne Pavy-Le Traon, a senior consultant at the Medes Institute in Toulouse, where the experiment is being carried out, "namely atrophy of the muscles of the back and the legs, a reduction of bone density in the backbone and the legs, a diminished capacity for muscular exercise and lowered metabolism."

Pascal Delavaux can vouch for that. He took part in phase one of the experiment last year and still comes into the institute for occasional check ups. The first change he noticed was that his calf muscles became very soft. "Imagine a plastic bag filled with water and how it moved when you tap on it. The muscles were like that," he said.

Researchers are studying these effects, and ways of countering them so astronauts on future interplanetary missions won’t arrive at their destinations as living bags of jelly. Volunteers at Medes are divided into three groups: One groups gets a special drug against bone degeneration, another trains – laying down of course – on special exercise machines. The third group does nothing.

"The data show us that the ones who received the drug against osteoporosis had a much higher bone density than the others," said Stéphane Beroud, a physician observing the volunteers. "Of course the ones who did exercise were more physically fit than the others."

Psychologically Difficult

For former volunteer Pascal Delavaux, the physical degeneration was the least of the ordeal.

"What I missed most was not going out, not having fresh air, sun, rain and wind, as well as the small pleasures like chocolate or wine or a beer," he said. "And in the third months there was a certain growing sexual frustration."

Still, researchers said they were pleasantly surprised at the participants good psychological adjustment. All volunteers had been screened carefully before being accepted to the program to make sure they were mentally stable. A team of psychologists are also on hand to follow the development of each subject and provide therapeutic support if necessary.

After stage one ended last year, another kind of support was needed for subjects getting on their feet for the first time after three months. A hand to hold and a bar to hold on to.

"Your head and upper body feel hot, but the legs are very, very heavy," Delavaux said, describing putting his feet down for the first time. "I felt like they were burning."

That sensation passed after a few hours, and the balance problems were over after several days. Tests of muscle function now show that his body has returned to normal.

Besides providing direct benefits for astronauts on board the International Space Station and on future long-distance missions, the study is expected to contribute to the treatment of hospitalized, bed-ridden patients, helping doctors counter the frequent problems of bone and muscle loss.