Space Travel Linked to Skin and Hair Issues, Mice Show

Mice that spent three months aboard the International Space Station returned to Earth with thinning skin and surprising changes in hair follicles.

Mice that spent three months aboard the International Space Station returned to Earth with thinning skin and surprising changes in hair follicles, a finding that may have implications for understanding the scope of physiological changes long-duration spaceflight has on humans, as well.

"There has been anecdotal evidence of skin problems in astronauts on orbit, including slow healing of scratches, and some crew members have had nonspecific rashes," NASA's lead space station scientist Julie Robinson told Discovery News.

In general, those skin problems have been considered nuisance medical issues, though the skin may be part of broader changes in the immune system, she added.

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The new mouse study hints that genetic changes are involved, with researchers reporting "significant modulation of 434 genes" in the space-flown mice, compared to ground-based subjects, Betty Nusgens, with the University of Liege in Belgium, and colleagues write in this week's Microgravity, a new journal by Nature Publishing.

"We have no clear answer. We have shown in several publications that fibroblasts, the cells populating the dermis, react to stress relaxation and microgravity by a disorganization of their cytoskeleton. That fibroblasts sense the loss of gravity within the dermal tissue is an open issue," Nusgens wrote in an email to Discovery News.

"The results on hair follicles were unexpected," she added. "Our hypothesis is that the stem cells involved in the hair follicle cycle .... are disturbed by microgravity."

The new findings are limited by the small sample size. Three of six mice flown for a 91-day stay aboard the station in 2009 died during the flight and were not viable for post-landing tissue analysis. (One mouse died from a major spinal cord injury that likely occurred when the space shuttle blasted off; the second mouse appears to have died from a liver disease; and the third due to a failure of its automated food-delivery system aboard the station, the authors note.)

The surviving trio, euthanized after landing, all showed "a significant reduction of dermal thickness" and numerous hair follicles in unexpected active, growing phases, the researchers wrote.

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They also noted changes in the muscles underlying the skin.

"This suggests that the skin of astronauts may be affected by pathophysiological alterations that could be detrimental during long trips in space," the study concludes.

"These results can be considered as a warning signal to space program policymakers to perform clinical investigations on the astronauts' skin to evaluate a potential thinning" making it more fragile, Nusgens wrote in an email.

So far, scientists have studied skin changes in just one astronaut, Europe's Thomas Reiter.

Additional insight may come from an ongoing European Space Agency space station study called SKIN-B and a Japanese investigation called HAIR.

NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson on first STS-131 Spacewalk.

On July 16, 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins launched atop a Saturn V rocket toward the moon. The 8-day NASA mission captivated the planet as Armstrong and Aldrin explored the lunar surface on July 20, supported by Michael Collins who orbited overhead. 46 years after the first successful landing of the Apollo program, we've dug into the NASA archives to find some familiar and some not-so-familiar views of the Apollo 11 mission. All photos and captions can be found in

NASA's Human Spaceflight Gallery


Neil Armstrong leads the way across Pad A, Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., during the Apollo 11 prelaunch countdown on July 16, 1969. Michael Collins follows behind.

The massive 363-feet tall Apollo 11 launched at 9:32 a.m. (EDT) on July 16, 1969, carrying Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins into the history books.

This photo was taken from a door-mounted camera on a U.S. Air Force EC-135N aircraft shortly after launch. The Saturn V second and third stages separate from the spent first (S-1C) stage, which then dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. Recently, the first stage engines were retrieved from the ocean floor by founder Jeff Bezos.

Earth is captured through the Apollo astronauts' camera lens on the way to the moon.

Earth shrinks as Apollo 11 continues its journey.

Aldrin looks into the TV camera during the third broadcast from space on the way to the moon.

The Apollo 11 Command and Service Modules (CSM) are photographed from the Lunar Module (LM) in lunar orbit during the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

After descending from the lunar module after a successful landing on July 20, 1969, Armstrong makes a bootprint in the loose lunar regolith. The astronauts' bootprints remain untouched on the dusty surface to this day.

Aldrin descends the steps of the Lunar Module ladder as he prepares to walk on the moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin deploy the American flag outside the lunar module "Eagle" at Tranquility Base in the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969.

Aldrin prepares to deploy experiments on the lunar surface next to the large lunar module, "Eagle."

Aldrin oversees the deployment of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP), photographed by Armstrong during the crew extravehicular activity (EVA).

Aldrin stands next to one of the lunar module legs.

Armstrong inside the lunar module just after his famous moonwalk.

Collins photographs the returning lunar module with Armstrong and Aldrin inside. Soon after, the lunar module docked with the orbiting Command and Services Modules to begin the journey back to Earth.

Aldrin illustrates the gyroscope principle under zero-gravity conditions using a can of food in front of the TV cameras as the crew travel back to Earth from the moon.

The three Apollo 11 crew men await pickup by a helicopter from the USS Hornet, prime recovery ship for the lunar landing mission, after a fiery reentry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center, Building 30, Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

The Apollo 11 spacecraft Command Module and the Mobile Quarantine Facility are photographed aboard the USS Hornet.

Left to right: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, in a 21-day quarantine, are greeted by their wives.

New York City welcomes Apollo 11 crewmen in a showering of ticker tape down Broadway and Park Avenue in a parade termed as the largest in the city's history on Aug. 13, 1969.