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Ensuring astronauts’ health in the weightlessness of space

Three people collaborate together in a laboratory space.

UND director of biomedical engineering tracks the cardiovascular and respiratory systems of astronauts to better understand the effects of weightlessness on the human body


Last week, Dr. Kouhyar Tavakolian traveled to NASA’s Johnson Space Center for the fourth time to lead the signal acquisition from astronauts returning from the International Space Station with a group of researchers from Simon Fraser University in Canada. 

Dr. Tavakolian, director of the biomedical engineering program at the University of North Dakota College of Engineering & Mines, has been co-leading groundbreaking research on space travel’s effects on astronauts’ cardiorespiratory systems. He and his team have been working on the CARDIOBREATH project, tracking changes in how astronauts’ cardiovascular and respiratory systems control their blood pressure.

The project utilizes the Bio-Monitor, a Canadian-made smart shirt system designed to monitor astronauts’ vital signs in space.

The project aims to understand better how weightlessness affects astronauts’ cardiovascular and respiratory systems and to develop countermeasures and recovery protocols for astronauts.

Collecting astronaut vitals

The CARDIOBREATH experiment involves testing astronauts’ cardiovascular systems four times: twice before and twice after their spaceflight. The participants wear custom-fitted Bio-Monitor devices and cycle on a stationary bike for 25 minutes at a specific level of effort while researchers track their heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and activity level. Additional measurements are taken in a standing position, such as the measurement of balance.

During their time in space, participants wear the same custom-fitted Bio-Monitor devices and perform the same cycling exercise session they did on the ground. They also collect measurements for a few minutes during rest periods before and after the exercise session.

The researchers will compare the results obtained on Earth with those obtained in space. They will also compare the results of astronauts to determine whether sex-based differences exist.

Insights into life in space – and back home

The results of the CARDIOBREATH experiment could lead to new insights into how weightlessness affects astronauts’ cardiovascular and respiratory systems. It could also help researchers develop new ways to keep astronauts healthy during — and after — spaceflight. 

“Weightlessness can cause several health issues for astronauts,” explains Dr. Tavakolian. “Studying how the cardiorespiratory system deconditions and affects the control of blood pressure in a weightless environment will help researchers come up with ways to keep astronauts healthier.”

Back on Earth, the research could have implications for improving the health of elderly patients.

“The cardiorespiratory changes that happen during space flight are similar to what happens as people age on Earth and to people whose bodies decondition after a long period of bed rest.”

About Dr. Kouhyar Tavakolian

Dr. Tavakolian is the director of the Biomedical Engineering Program at the University of North Dakota. Before joining UND, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. 

His particular interest is in biological signal and image processing and biomedical instrumentation. He has published over one hundred fifty journals, conference proceedings, patents, and book chapters in these fields. A scientist with entrepreneurial interest and experience in knowledge transfer to the industry, he has co-founded startups, served as a board member, and is working towards finishing an MBA at UND. Dr. Tavakolian is also one of the founders of the Senior Healthcare Innovation Consortium, which is focused on bringing healthcare into place for the senior population.


Written by Paige Prekker  //  UND College of Engineering & Mines