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Women rising to the challenge of weightlessness


Following 60 days of ’bedrest’ simulating the effects of weightlessness on the body, the first volunteers in the WISE (Women International Space Simulation for Exploration) study have been getting back on their feet.

They all speak of having had a wonderfully enriching experience both in scientific and human terms. A press conference attended by those in charge of the study and volunteers is to be held on 2 June.

The volunteers in question are twelve women, drawn from seven European countries. Since March they have been confined to bed at the MEDES (French Institute of Space Medicine and Physiology) space clinic in Toulouse, in what is the longest female bedrest experiment ever conducted within the European Community.

For these two months, they have been confined to bed, lying at a 6° angle, their feet raised slightly above their heads. In such a position it is possible to induce in the body phenomena similar to those encountered by astronauts when subjected to weightlessness for long periods, such as a loss of muscle mass and capacity for effort followed by a reduction in bone mass. A better understanding of the mechanisms governing this adaptation of the body to weightless conditions will be invaluable when it comes to developing counter measures for astronauts. It will also have applications on Earth, for example in the treatment of those in need of long-term hospitalisation, and more generally, of the effects of physical inactivity on health.

Experiments of this type have already been carried out, notably in two three-month sessions involving male volunteers in 2001 and 2002. However, the WISE study is the first long-duration bedrest programme to be conducted in Europe using female subjects.

Some wanted a challenge, others to do their bit

From the time preparations get under way for the bedrest phase to the rehabilitation phase once they are back on their feet, the twelve volunteers will have spent three months at the MEDES clinic, in what they all agreed was an extraordinary experience.

Some, out of a spirit of adventure, signed up as a way of taking on yet another challenge; this was the case with Marjo from Finland, who had already toured the world, or the sport-loving Dorotha from Poland, who lives in Sweden, works in Ireland and previously studied in Italy! "It’s a way of testing your limits", explained Elisabeth from Germany, who, like Polish Beata, had tried her hand at parachuting prior to joining the experiment.

Others, such as Monica from the Czech Republic, saw the three-month period as a way of taking some time out from their daily lives, while at the same time being of service to the community. This was also a factor for one of the five French women taking part, Laurence, who had already been involved in drug trials and did not really consider it to be a challenge: "I needed to take some time out from my normal life, to have a change of scene. In the event, I learned a lot. It is also a way of exploring your inner self and forming a clearer understanding of what you are capable of".

Similarly, Delphine, a piano teacher from France, described the study as "a personal challenge, and a way of discovering my physical capabilities, but also a new experience, a way of becoming involved in space activities and making a worthwhile contribution".

The twelve women were involved in scientific tests from a very early stage. From the moment they volunteered, they were kept fully informed about the tests they would have to undergo and also of all the expected scientific benefits.

Dieter Isakeit | alfa
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