Journal of Physiology
The primary goal of this study was to determine the effects of prolonged space flight (~180 days) on the structure and function of slow and fast fibres in human skeletal muscle. Biopsies were obtained from the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of nine International Space Station crew members ~45 days pre- and on landing day (R+0) postflight. The main findings were that prolonged weightlessness produced substantial loss of fibre mass, force, and power with the hierarchy of the effects being soleus type I > soleus type II > gastrocnemius type I > gastrocnemius type II. Structurally, the quantitatively most important adaptation was fibre atrophy which averaged 20% in the soleus type I fibres (98 to 79 μm dia). Atrophy was the main contributor to the loss of peak force (P0) which for the soleus type I fibre declined 35% from 0.86 to 0.56 mN. The % decrease in fibre diameter was correlated with the initial pre-flight fibre size (r = 0.87), inversely with the amount of treadmill running (r = 0.68), and was associated with an increase in thin filament density (r = 0.92). The latter correlated with reduced V0 (r = -0.51), and likely contributed to the 21 and 18% decline in V0 in the soleus and gastrocnemius type I fibres. Peak power was depressed in all fibre types with the greatest loss (~55%) in the soleus. An obvious conclusion is that the exercise countermeasures employed were incapable of providing the high-intensity needed to adequately protect fibre and muscle mass, and that the crew’s ability to perform strenuous exercise might be seriously compromised. Our results highlight the need to study new exercise programs on the ISS that employ high resistance and contractions over a wide range of motion to mimic the range occurring in Earth’s 1 g environment.