Effects of spaceflight on cartilage: implications on spinal physiology

J Spine Surg. 2018 Jun;4(2):433-445. doi: 10.21037/jss.2018.04.07.


Spaceflight alters normal physiology of cells and tissues observed on Earth. The effects of spaceflight on the musculoskeletal system have been thoroughly studied, however, the effects on cartilage have not. This area is gaining more relevance as long duration missions, such as Mars, are planned. The impact on intervertebral discs and articular cartilage are of particular interest to astronauts and their physicians. This review surveys the literature and reports on the current body of knowledge regarding the effects of spaceflight on cartilage, and specifically changes to the spine and intervertebral disc integrity and physiology. A systematic literature review was conducted using PubMed, MEDLINE, and Google Scholar. Eighty-six unique papers were identified, 15 of which were included. The effect of spaceflight on cartilage is comprehensively presented due to limited research on the effect of microgravity on the spine/intervertebral discs. Cellular, animal, and human studies are discussed, focusing on human physiologic changes, cartilage histology, mineralization, biomechanics, chondrogenesis, and tissue engineering. Several common themes were found, such as decreased structural integrity of intervertebral disks and impaired osteogenesis/ossification. However, studies also presented conflicting results, rendering strong conclusions difficult. The paucity of human cartilage studies in spaceflight leaves extrapolation from other model systems the only current option for drawing conclusions despite known and unknown limitations in applicability to human physiology, especially spinal pathophysiology which is special interest. The aerospace and biomedical research communities would benefit from further human spaceflight articular cartilage and intervertebral disc studies. Further research may yield beneficial application for spaceflight, and crossover in understanding and treating terrestrial diseases like osteoarthritis and vertebral disc degeneration.

Keywords: Cartilage; chondroblast; chondrocyte; intravertebral disc; microgravity; spaceflight; spine.

Publication types

  • Review