The European Space Agency recently awarded €640,000 ($875,000) to a multidisciplinary research team to identify biomarkers related to sleep regulation, cognitive performance, and mood.
Using arrays, the team will monitor gene expression in a group of individuals stationed in Antarctica over the coming year to investigate the effect of exercise on sleep regulation, cognitive performance, and mood during both Antarctic summer and winter.
The study will also quantify the impact of sleep and circadian rhythm disturbance on executive function in an environment of isolation and confinement.
According to Patrick De Boever, an R&D professional in the Flemish Institute for Technology Research (VITO), the study, called Neuropole, could lead to the discovery of markers that could be used to monitor the health and performance of individuals during a long-term space mission or confinement to a base on the Moon or Mars.
"We will be analyzing mood, performance, behavior, [and] will also look at sleep rhythms and disturbances," De Boever told BioArray News this week. "We will investigate how a disturbed sleep rhythm can have effect on immunology and psychological well-being."
Neuropole is being carried out with researchers from the Royal Military Academy of Belgium, the Free University of Brussels, and the German Sport University in Cologne. The project, which began in December 2010, is expected to be completed by December 2012, De Boever said.
The research builds on an ongoing project called "Assessment of biomarkers for behavioral adaptation and health during isolated stay in Concordia," or Beacon. Researchers from VITO, the Neurotoxicological and Neuropsychological Expertise Centre in Belgium, and the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome received the €300,000 grant for Beacon in September 2009 and De Boever predicts the Beacon project will be completed by December 2011.
Like Neuropole, the Beacon project is focused on studying a small group of individuals located at the Antarctic Concordia Station as part of a larger agency project to prepare for the eventual stationing of scientists on Mars.
The primary difference between the two projects is that Neuropole's focus has been expanded to monitor gene-expression changes related to sleep conditions, and the possible impact of physical exercise as countermeasure, whereas Beacon did not collect sleep-related data.
"The ESA research project aims to investigate effect of having small group of people in a confined area, the situation you would expect during a long-term space mission or base on the Moon or Mars," De Boever said. "This kind of confinement might have a biological effect, such as immunological changes, that may be reflected in psychological effects, as well.
"People might go into a depression-like state or perform poorly, which could jeopardize the health of the persons and the success of a mission," he added.
De Boever's team is using Agilent Technologies' whole-genome gene-expression microarrays and RT-PCR to identify predictive markers that would serve as an early warning sign of certain immunological or physiological effects. Initially, the VITO-led team aimed to profile gene expression in blood samples from the Concordia team, but then expanded the focus to look at expression changes in saliva.
"Access to blood is not always easy," said De Boever. "That's why we thought about saliva as alternative."
VITO partnered with Ottawa-based DNA Genotek to provide saliva collection kits. DNA Genotek's Oragene RNA kits have been employed for the purposes of the Beacon study, the sample collection period of which ran from January 2010 to January 2011, as well as the Neuropole study.
Ian Curry, president and CEO at DNA Genotek, said in a statement earlier this month that the Oragene RNA kits were selected for their ability to "stabilize an RNA sample for months at ambient temperatures" which made them "ideal for the challenging environments in these studies," an attribute De Boever confirmed.
According to De Boever, the first Beacon-related samples from Concordia arrived at VITO's labs in Mol, Belgium, earlier this month. He and fellow researchers are now busy analyzing the data and comparing it to other information, such as questionnaires and performance measurements, in order to create a panel of predictive biomarkers. De Boever said that ESA expects a report on the study by the end of this year.
The Neuropole project will follow a similar course, with sample collection, which was begun last month, expected to be completed by January 2012, and a report to ESA scheduled for delivery by the end of 2012.
VITO is using arrays in yet a third project. In conjunction with the German Sport University in Cologne, the agency will use chips to monitor the effect of stress of human volunteers participating in parabolic flights.
During such flights, "one can initiate short periods of weightlessness," De Boever noted. "During that period, we want to look at the effects of acute stress and weightlessness on well-being and performance," he said.
According to De Boever, blood and saliva samples were taken before and after the parabolic flights experiment, which was conducted in November 2010. VITO is now also analyzing the data from that study.
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