Scientists are exploring the relationship between nerve cells and immune cells in the brain which seem to play key roles in the onset of both diseases.

These include neurons and the cells that form them, creating the body’s nervous network and allowing the brain to monitor and control it; and microglia – immune cells which patrol the brain, defending  neurons from threatening invaders.

Led by the New York Stem Foundation Research Institute, researchers launched newly created diseased and healthy cell samples into space to observe them away from the Earth’s gravitational pull.

One sample holds the cells of a Parkinson’s patient and a healthy person of a similar age. The second, the cells of an MS patient and an age-matched healthy donor. A tubing and pump system automatically provides liquid food to the cells inside their chambers.  

Valentina Fossati from the New York Stem Foundation Research Institute says: “The microglia are found in every part of the brain, and it’s really starting to look like neurodegenerative illnesses develop because the cells begin behaving improperly or overreacting. Misbehaving microglia may contribute to killing the neurons.”

The cell samples are currently aboard the space station, stored inside Space Tango’s CubeLabdesigned specifically for microgravity research. Inside the CubeLabthere is a camera to allow observation on the 96 chambers holding the cells.

“This is the first time anyone has researched the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on such cells,” said Andres Bratt-Leal of Aspen Neuroscience.

“We know that forces can influence the behaviour of cells by changing aspects such as their shape. So, what happens when you remove gravity?

“How the cells respond will tell us new things about how they function.”

Fossati and Bratt-Leal will observe the cells for 30 days from Earth, analysing how the microglia cells respond to the healthy cells. The results will be due following the samples’ return to Earth.


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