Functional and structural adaptations of skeletal muscle to microgravity

R H Fitts, D R Riley, J J Widrick
Journal of Experimental Biology 2001, 204: 3201-8
Our purpose is to summarize the major effects of space travel on skeletal muscle with particular emphasis on factors that alter function. The primary deleterious changes are muscle atrophy and the associated decline in peak force and power. Studies on both rats and humans demonstrate a rapid loss of cell mass with microgravity. In rats, a reduction in muscle mass of up to 37% was observed within 1 week. For both species, the antigravity soleus muscle showed greater atrophy than the fast-twitch gastrocnemius. However, in the rat, the slow type I fibers atrophied more than the fast type II fibers, while in humans, the fast type II fibers were at least as susceptible to space-induced atrophy as the slow fiber type. Space flight also resulted in a significant decline in peak force. For example, the maximal voluntary contraction of the human plantar flexor muscles declined by 20-48% following 6 months in space, while a 21% decline in the peak force of the soleus type I fibers was observed after a 17-day shuttle flight. The reduced force can be attributed both to muscle atrophy and to a selective loss of contractile protein. The former was the primary cause because, when force was expressed per cross-sectional area (kNm(-2)), the human fast type II and slow type I fibers of the soleus showed no change and a 4% decrease in force, respectively. Microgravity has been shown to increase the shortening velocity of the plantar flexors. This increase can be attributed both to an elevated maximal shortening velocity (V(0)) of the individual slow and fast fibers and to an increased expression of fibers containing fast myosin. Although the cause of the former is unknown, it might result from the selective loss of the thin filament actin and an associated decline in the internal drag during cross-bridge cycling. Despite the increase in fiber V(0), peak power of the slow type I fiber was reduced following space flight. The decreased power was a direct result of the reduced force caused by the fiber atrophy. In addition to fiber atrophy and the loss of force and power, weightlessness reduces the ability of the slow soleus to oxidize fats and increases the utilization of muscle glycogen, at least in rats. This substrate change leads to an increased rate of fatigue. Finally, with return to the 1g environment of earth, rat studies have shown an increased occurrence of eccentric contraction-induced fiber damage. The damage occurs with re-loading and not in-flight, but the etiology has not been established.

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