Background: Microgravity has been thought to induce osteoporosis because of reduced weight-bearing. However, up to now, few data have been available about its precise nature and timecourse.
Methods: We measured bone mineral density (BMD) at the distal radius and tibia in 15 cosmonauts of the Russian MIR space station who sojourned in space either 1 (n=two), 2 (two), or 6 months (11). After recovery periods of similar duration to the space missions, BMD was measured for the 2-month and 6-month crews.
Findings: Neither cancellous nor cortical bone of the radius was significantly changed at any of the timepoints. On the contrary, in the weight-bearing tibial site, cancellous BMD loss was already present after the first month and deteriorated with mission duration. In tibial cortices, bone loss was noted after a 2-month flight. In the 6-month group, cortical bone loss was less pronounced than that for cancellous bone. In some individuals, tibial deterioration was great. Actual BMD did not depend on preceding cumulative periods spent in space. During recovery, tibial bone loss persisted, suggesting that the time needed to recover is longer than the mission duration.
Interpretation: In space, despite physical training, bone loss is an adaptive process that can become pathological after recovery on Earth. Striking interindividual variations in bone responses seem to suggest a need for adequate crew preselection. Targeted treatment or prevention strategies would be useful, not only for space purposes, but also for the increasing number of osteoporotic patients on Earth.