Microgravity and the respiratory system

Eur Respir J. 2014 May;43(5):1459-71. doi: 10.1183/09031936.00001414. Epub 2014 Mar 6.


The structure of the lung, with its delicate network of airspaces and capillaries, means that gravity has a profound influence on its function. Studies of lung function in the absence of gravity provide valuable insight into how, for we Earth-bound individuals, its unavoidable effects shape our lung function. Gravity causes uneven ventilation in the lung through the deformation of lung tissue (the so-called Slinky effect), and uneven perfusion through a combination of the Slinky effect and the zone model of pulmonary perfusion. Both ventilation and perfusion exhibit persisting heterogeneity in microgravity, indicating important other mechanisms. However, gravity serves to maintain a degree of matching of these two processes, so that the ventilation/perfusion ratio, and thus gas exchange, remains efficient. Therefore, while both ventilation and perfusion are more uniform in spaceflight, gas exchange is seemingly no more efficient than on Earth. Despite the changes in lung function when gravity is removed, the lung continues to function well in weightlessness. Unlike many other organ systems, the lung does not appear to undergo structural adaptive changes when gravity is removed, and so there is no apparent degradation in lung function upon return to earth, even after 6 months in space.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aerosols
  • Gravitation
  • Humans
  • Lung / physiology*
  • Perfusion
  • Pulmonary Gas Exchange*
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Respiratory System*
  • Space Flight*
  • Weightlessness


  • Aerosols