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The Human Sympathetic Nervous System Response to SpaceflightThe sympathetic nervous system is an important part of the autonomic (or automatic) nervous system. When an individual stands up, the sympathetic nervous system speeds the heart and constricts blood vessels to prevent a drop in blood pressure. A significant number of astronauts experience a drop in blood pressure when standing for prolonged periods after they return from spaceflight. Difficulty maintaining blood pressure with standing is also a daily problem for many patients. Indirect evidence available before the Neurolab mission suggested the problem in astronauts while in space might be due partially to reduced sympathetic nervous system activity. The purpose of this experiment was to identify whether sympathetic activity was reduced during spaceflight. Sympathetic nervous system activity can be determined in part by measuring heart rate, nerve activity going to blood vessels, and the release of the hormone norepinephrine into the blood. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter discharged from active sympathetic nerve terminals, so its rate of release can serve as a marker of sympathetic nervous system action. In addition to standard cardiovascular measurements (heart rate, blood pressure), we determined sympathetic nerve activity as well as norepinephrine release and clearance on four crewmembers on the Neurolab mission. Contrary to our expectation, the results demonstrated that the astronauts had mildly elevated resting sympathetic nervous system activity in space. Sympathetic nervous system responses to stresses that simulated the cardiovascular effects of standing (lower body negative pressure) were brisk both during and after spaceflight. We concluded that, in the astronauts tested, the activity and response of the sympathetic nervous system to cardiovascular stresses appeared intact and mildly elevated both during and after spaceflight. These changes returned to normal within a few days.
Document ID
Document Type
Ertl, Andrew C.
(Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, TN, United States)
Diedrich, Andre
(Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, TN, United States)
Paranjape, Sachin Y.
(Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, TN, United States)
Biaggioni, Italo
(Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, TN, United States)
Robertson, Rose Marie
(Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, TN, United States)
Lane, Lynda D.
(Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, TN, United States)
Shiavi, Richard
(Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, TN, United States)
Robertson, David
(Vanderbilt Univ. Nashville, TN, United States)
Date Acquired
September 7, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 2003
Publication Information
Publication: The Neurolab Spacelab Mission: Neuroscience Research in Space: Results from the STS-90, Neurolab Spacelab Mission
Subject Category
Aerospace Medicine
Funding Number(s)
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.
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