The collaboration between UT Southwestern Medical Center and NASA began in 1966 with the landmark Bed Rest and Training Study. The study confined five 20 year old men to bed rest for three weeks, followed by eight weeks of physical training. The experiment was intended to explore the potential impact of long-term space flight on the cardiovascular system.
The men were tested before and after bed rest for their aerobic capacity. The results showed prolonged rest had weakened their hearts and reduced their capacity for fitness and exercise. However, after eight weeks of intensive training, they regained, and even surpassed their original capacity for aerobic activity.
Not only did this study help NASA better prepare astronauts for the effects of space travel, it changed the course of medical treatments for heart attack patients. Prior to the study, heart attack patients were prescribed lots of bedrest and told to limit physical activity. But the results of the study showed the correct course of action for cardio rehabilitation to be the opposite — lots of activity and exercise.
The late Dr. C. Gunnar Blomquist, one of the primary researchers on the study, went on to design numerous research projects on the Space Shuttle and Mir Space Station to study gravity’s affects the cardiovascular system. In fact, on NASA’s first flight dedicated to human medical research in 1991, his colleague Dr. Drew Gaffney became UT Southwestern’s first astronaut, volunteering to be studied in orbit. Another colleague, Dr. Ben Levine, Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern, placed the heart catheter in Gaffney and monitored the results from Earth.
Today, Dr. Ben Levine, who helped found The Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, is the principal investigator on the Integrated CardioVascular study, “the largest cardiovascular experiment ever performed on the International Space Station.” The results may offer astronauts more effective ways to protect their hearts in space. The research breakthroughs in cardiovascular health coming out of UTSW will continue to find life-saving and life-enhancing treatments for patients with heart disease and circulatory disorders.
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