The fascinating blog series chronicling a year in the life of ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen at the Concordia research station in Antarctica continues. Catch-up with his previous blogs at Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
Concordia, July 28, 2020
Sunlight: none, but the skies are turning colours again!
Windchill temperature: -83°C
Mood: some days a little tired, and on others, like the skies, full of colour
If you have read my previous posts, you have probably had enough of the beautiful-environment-and-working-together-drivel, and I am guessing you are now thinking something along the lines of: weren’t you supposed to do space research?
Good question, and it makes me realise that perhaps it is time for something more interesting: science!
But I am not sure if an ESA blog can go without any music, so before we continue here is a nice tune to walk you through:
Take, for example, the altitude. Here in Concordia we live at an altitude that is equivalent to about 3800 meters above sea level at the equator. As such, it's as if the air were to contain about 40% less oxygen for us to breath, and you definitely feel that when you arrive here by plane. Low energy, panting with the slightest exercise, waking up gasping for air multiple times a night, headache, dizziness, loss of appetite. Some really get sick from it, and in rare cases people have to be sent back to the coast due to life-threatening build-up of fluid in the lungs or brain! Yet, in 1978 Messner and Habeler reached the summit of Mount Everest at an altitude of 8848 meters without using any supplemental oxygen at all. How? They allowed time for their bodies to adapt.
At Concordia it usually takes a few days before you feel better. As your body senses a decrease in oxygen pressure it immediately tries to save your cells from getting damaged by sucking in more air (breathing) and pump more oxygen through the body (by increasing heart rate), and subsequently starts up a remarkable cascade of physiological processes that eventually leads to an increased production of red blood cells. As a result, the composition of our blood can drastically change over weeks, to help deliver sufficient oxygen to each of our cells. Pretty cool, don’t you think? Even though after eight months I still find myself hyperventilating up the stairs and having miserable nights every once in a while, at least it allows me to go to beautiful places like Concordia!
The adaptation however comes with a trade-off: if the need for oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is too high (at higher altitudes, where there is less oxygen) and too many red blood cells are made, the blood can become so thick that it increases the risk of blood clotting, high blood pressure in the lungs, and even heart failure! Such health issues have been seen in some people living permanently at high altitude. So how healthy actually is a year of adaptation at Concordia? Knowing that similar low oxygen conditions may exist in future space habitats for technical, economical and safety reasons, and considering the simultaneous blood volume alterations usually seen as an effect of microgravity, answering that question is important to understand astronaut health and safety during future long-duration space missions.
The ANTARCV study (‘alterations in total red blood cell volume and plasma volume during a one-year confinement in Antarctica: effect of hypoxia’) is implemented this year to do so. Each month the crew comes to the ESA lab for a lucky treatment of vein punctures, and an awkward procedure of breathing a very small and safe dose of carbon monoxide through small, restrictive tubes. This way I can determine our blood volumes. Besides I analyze how thick our blood is, store blood samples for further analysis in Europe, and we all wear a watch one week a month to record our activity. That way we make sure that the changes we see in blood volumes are not just a result of changes in physical activity. You can understand the crew loves me for it…
ANTARCV on full speed. By administering carbon monoxide and determining the increase in its concentration in the blood, we can calculate how many red blood cells are circulating through the body/ANTARCV op volle snelheid. Door koolstofmonoxide toe te dienen en de concentratietoename te bepalen in het bloed, kunnen we berekenen hoeveel rode bloedcellen er door het lichaam circuleren. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen
Still, all of us are participating in the research, and that is awesome! You see, doing human research here can be quite a challenge, not only because of language barriers, limited data transfer possibilities, or complex transportation logistics, but mostly so because the participation in these experiments is entirely voluntary. None of us works here primarily to serve as a test subject, and it is not that I can force anyone really… So to make sure I come home after a year with sufficient interesting data, I better make sure that everyone is happy with what we are doing here. For me perhaps a tricky mix between work and private life, but all for the good cause of science! After all, who doesn’t want to be part of the space program, bring benefit to future hivernauts and astronauts, and on top of that help to understand health challenges of our present-day society?
Note: this article was originally posted on the ESA blog website (LINK) and permission has been obtained to republish it here.