(CN) – Harvard scientists said Wednesday that an antioxidant-like compound found in red wine could help astronauts preserve muscle mass and strength during long-term missions such as the exploration of Mars.
NASA officials announced in March that the agency would embark on a new era of deep space exploration marked by missions to place humans on the moon again and eventually a round-trip, human mission to the Red Planet.
A trip to Mars, timed to launch when the planet is closest to Earth, would take about 9 months and explorers’ bodies will have to withstand the Martian planet’s gravity, which drops 40% from Earth’s standard pull.
Harvard researcher and study lead author Marie Mortreux said in a statement Wednesday that weight-bearing muscles such as the soleus muscle in calf can shrink by a third in just three weeks outside of Earth’s gravity.
“This is accompanied by a loss of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are needed for endurance,” Mortreux said, adding that Mars explorers will likely lack access to exercise machines like those found on the International Space Station. “Dietary strategies could be key.”
In order to find strategies to prevent muscle deconditioning, Mortreux’s team placed rats in simulated low-gravity conditions and gave them Resveratrol, an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic compound found in grape skin and blueberries.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, researchers found that Resveratrol extensively preserved the rats’ muscle mass and strength.
“Resveratrol has been shown to preserve bone and muscle mass in rats during complete unloading, analogous to microgravity during spaceflight,” Mortreux said. “So, we hypothesized that a moderate daily dose would help mitigate muscle deconditioning in a Mars gravity analogue, too.”
In a process mimicking Mars’ gravity, male rats were fitted with a full-body harness and suspended by a chain for 14 days from their cage’s ceilings.
The conditions shrank the rats’ muscle mass, weakened their grips and lowered their body weight.
But the rats treated with Resveratrol were able to maintain the mass and grip of their front and rear paws while losing mass in their calf muscles, the study found.
The compound also reduced the loss of rats’ slow-twitch muscle fibers, researchers said in a statement, adding that the treatment did not affect the rodents’ food intake or body weight.
But the mass of the rats’ calf muscles declined under simulated low-gravity and was unaffected by Resveratrol, according to the NASA-funded study.
Mortreux said in the statement that insulin sensitivity is a key factor for Resveratrol’s application in space missions.
“Resveratrol treatment promotes muscle growth in diabetic or unloaded animals, by increasing insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake in the muscle fibers,” Mortreux said. “This is relevant for astronauts, who are known to develop reduced insulin sensitivity during spaceflight.”
Mortreux added that more research is needed to determine the response to the compound from both male and female bodies as well as the effects of higher doses.
“In addition, it will be important to confirm the lack of any potentially harmful interactions of Resveratrol with other drugs administered to astronauts during space missions,” Mortreux said.