These women are doing their part for science: By lying in bed for a week.
A group of 20 female volunteers is spending five days in bed as part of a study at the Medes space clinic in Toulouse, France. The idea is to investigate the effects of microgravity on the body using a technique called dry immersion.
One of the best ways to simulate the weightlessness of space here on Earth is to use water. That’s why astronauts train for spacewalks in what is, essentially, a giant swimming pool. However, volunteers can’t stay in water long-term to see the effects on their bodies over periods of days rather than hours.
So a dry immersion study works by using a fancy water bed. The volunteers lie in giant bathtubs, but with the water covered by waterproof fabric. This way, they aren’t in direct contact with the water but it still supports their body in a way that is similar to what astronauts experience when they leave the gravity of Earth. They spend almost 24 hours a day in the water bed, with very limited body movements.
Microgravity is known to have a range of effects on the body, from muscle wasting (when your muscles don’t need to work to hold you up, they waste away over time) to fluid redistribution (when fluid pools in the upper half of the body). There are also psychological effects of limited motion in monotonous environments which are important to understand.
However, the large majority of research in this area, as with most research in space medicine, has been done on men. With an increasing number of women involved in spaceflight, there’s a need to do more specific research on their experiences.
“There is almost no knowledge about the physiological and psychological effects on women in this research area. An all-female dry immersion study will add to previous male campaigns ran in Europe and Russia,” said Angelique Van Ombergen, ESA’s discipline lead for life sciences.
As well as helping researchers to understand more about what the body goes through in microgravity, this research could help people on Earth too. The findings could be helpful for understanding the psychological and physical needs of patients with movement disorders or those who are immobilized or elderly.