Locomotor function after long-duration space flight: effects and motor learning during recovery

Exp Brain Res. 2010 May;202(3):649-59. doi: 10.1007/s00221-010-2171-0. Epub 2010 Feb 5.


Astronauts returning from space flight and performing Earth-bound activities must rapidly transition from the microgravity-adapted sensorimotor state to that of Earth's gravity. The goal of the current study was to assess locomotor dysfunction and recovery of function after long-duration space flight using a test of functional mobility. Eighteen International Space Station crewmembers experiencing an average flight duration of 185 days performed the functional mobility test (FMT) pre-flight and post-flight. To perform the FMT, subjects walked at a self selected pace through an obstacle course consisting of several pylons and obstacles set up on a base of 10-cm-thick, medium-density foam for a total of six trials per test session. The primary outcome measure was the time to complete the course (TCC, in seconds). To assess the long-term recovery trend of locomotor function after return from space flight, a multilevel exponential recovery model was fitted to the log-transformed TCC data. All crewmembers exhibited altered locomotor function after space flight, with a median 48% increase in the TCC. From the fitted model we calculated that a typical subject would recover to 95% of his/her pre-flight level at approximately 15 days post-flight. In addition, to assess the early motor learning responses after returning from space flight, we modeled performance over the six trials during the first post-flight session by a similar multilevel exponential relation. We found a significant positive correlation between measures of long-term recovery and early motor learning (P < 0.001) obtained from the respective models. We concluded that two types of recovery processes influence an astronaut's ability to re-adapt to Earth's gravity environment. Early motor learning helps astronauts make rapid modifications in their motor control strategies during the first hours after landing. Further, this early motor learning appears to reinforce the adaptive realignment, facilitating re-adaptation to Earth's 1-g environment on return from space flight.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Astronauts
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Locomotion / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Movement Disorders / etiology
  • Movement Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Movement Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Recovery of Function / physiology*
  • Space Flight*
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Time Factors
  • Weightlessness / adverse effects*