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Canadian Space Agency to conduct health experiment on space station

Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques announces a new research project that he will conduct on board the International Space Station, during a news conference in Calgary, Alta., on Oct. 19, 2016.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Astronauts headed to the International Space Station in 2018 won't only be conducting their own experiments – they'll be part of a bigger experiment themselves.

The Canadian Space Agency and the University of Calgary announced Wednesday they are collaborating on a new experiment to study how long-duration missions impact astronauts' brains.

Known as wayfinding, the study will examine how reduced gravitational forces affect the astronauts' ability to find their way around.

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"We're the perfect guinea pigs for medical research," said Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, who will head to the International Space Station for a six month mission in late 2018.

"It's part of the job. I mean if I can contribute to medical research and help save lives ultimately down the road and come up with the cure for something, it would be a great privilege."

It is hoped the research will eventually help those affected by neurological conditions and neural degeneration related to aging.

Studies have already shown that spending extended time in space can reduce bone density. Astronauts lose an average of more than one per cent bone mass for every month spent in space.

"There isn't a single system in your body that isn't affected by the lack of gravity," said Saint-Jacques.

"We have evolved on Earth for millions of years in the presence of gravity and our body works with gravity. You remove gravity and everything goes out of whack and, because of that, astronauts develop problems that often resemble real disease."

Giuseppe Iaria, the principal investigator for the wayfinding experiment at the University of Calgary, said his team will perform brain scans on the astronauts before they leave for the space station and after they return.

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"We will do some behaviour testing, some video-game like environments where we test the ability to find their way around in environments that we create and we manipulate just to see how their orientation skills are," said Iaria.

"Because there would be a lot of changes on the International Space Station, our hypothesis is that really the lack of gravity is really affecting specific mechanisms that are very, very important for spatial recognition and navigation."

Saint-Jacques, 46, was raised in Saint-Lambert, Quebec, and his background includes medicine, engineering and astrophysics.

He said, at this point, it's not clear what experiments he will be conducting aboard the International Space Station.

"Most Canadian-led experiments are to do with medicine and health research. That's our forte, other than robotics," he said.

"Generally speaking, on the space station, there's experiments to do with health, experiments to do with material science and fundamental physics. But a lot of biology ... more and more biology and medicine. That is fast becoming the main topic."

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