News Release
March 13, 2014

Penn Medicine Team to Examine Cognitive Impact of Space Flight as Part of NASA's Unprecedented Twin Astronaut Study

PHILADELPHIA — A team of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania will take part in a first-of-its-kind investigation by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into the molecular, physiological and psychological effects of spaceflight on the human body by comparing identical twins. The unique opportunity is made possible by NASA's decision to fly veteran astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station for one year, beginning March 2015, while his identical twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, remains on Earth. The research is part of NASA’s continuous effort to reduce the health impacts of human space exploration.

Penn’s research team includes principal investigator Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, MSc, assistant professor of Sleep and Chronobiology, Department of Psychiatry, David F. Dinges, PhD, professor and chief, Division of Sleep and Chronobiology, Department of Psychiatry, and Ruben C. Gur, PhD, professor of Psychology, Director of Neuropsychology, the Brain Behavior Laboratory, and the Center for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry.

Their research will focus on psychosocial and neurobehavioral differences between the Kelly brothers including attention, spatial orientation, emotion recognition, and risk decision making, as a result of the spaceflight environment, which includes confinement, weightlessness, stress, and space radiation. "This is a unique opportunity to substantially increase our knowledge of the effects of prolonged exposure to the space flight environment on human physiology and cognition which will help us to better plan for a human mission to Mars,” Basner said.

Using twins for the study will allow researchers to examine more subtle changes caused by spaceflight than previously understood. Since the twins have essentially almost identical DNA – and DNA controls the biomolecular workings of the body – any difference are likely due to spaceflight  and not because the two subjects are genetically distinct.

In addition to the work by the Penn team, NASA's Human Research Program (HRP) will fund nine other studies of the Kelly brothers designed to better understand the effects of microgravity on the human body at the molecular level. These studies will look at the way genes in the cells are turned on and off as a result of spaceflight; and how stressors like radiation, confinement and microgravity prompt changes in the proteins and metabolites gathered in biological samples like blood, saliva, urine and stool. The National Space Biomedical Research Institute is partnering with HRP to provide genetic counseling and assisting in the management of the research.

In order to launch the new twin study, scientific and technical experts from academia and government reviewed 40 proposals submitted in response to NASA’s research announcement "Human Exploration Research Opportunities - Differential Effects on Homozygous Twin Astronauts Associated with Differences in Exposure to Spaceflight Factors." The 10 selected proposals, which are from 10 institutions in seven states, will receive a combined $1.5 million during a three-year period.

For more information on the study, please visit the NASA website.

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Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 17 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $392 million awarded in the 2013 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; Chester County Hospital; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2013, Penn Medicine provided $814 million to benefit our community.

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