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Helping people regain full and pain-free use of their bodies

What do astronauts and people with lower back problems have in common? Both benefit directly from the research, policy and public engagement activities to which Nick Caplan – Professor of Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation at Northumbria University – has dedicated his life. Professor Caplan works with a range of collaborators from around the world in research relating to aspects of musculoskeletal dysfunction, leading Northumbria University’s Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation Laboratory.

Most notably, since 2009, Professor Caplan has been working with a team of international researchers to develop the Functional Re-adaptive Exercise Device (FRED). FRED is an anti-gravity exercise device designed to recruit and train the deep lumbo-pelvic muscles while performing functional cyclical lower limb movement – akin to the movement an exerciser would make on an elliptical trainer. It also helps users improve coordination, posture and balance. In fact, patients with lower back pain who used FRED reported improved function after just 6 weeks of use.

To ensure FRED reaches the widest number of users, Professor Caplan has been working with the European Space Agency (ESA). As a result of prolonged exposure to microgravity, astronauts frequently experience changes in their musculoskeletal systems that parallel those seen in people on Earth with lower back pain. As such, Professor Caplan is working to provide the evidence needed to support the idea of FRED being used in astronaut rehab both during and after space travel.

As a result of this collaboration, Professor Caplan became an advisor to ESA in relation to exercise after spaceflight, ensuring astronauts – such as British astronaut Tim Peake, who returned from space in 2016 – recover as quickly and completely as possible. He was also invited to contribute to a position paper published by the ESA’s Space Medicine Office on post space mission lumbo-pelvic neuromuscular reconditioning and an ESA report outlining its recommendations for future post-mission neuro-musculoskeletal reconditioning research and practice.

Professor Caplan’s research into spinal anti-gravity muscle rehabilitation has also acted as the foundation of a section of the Civil Aviation Authority’s 2014 report UK Government Review of commercial spaceplane certification and operations. This technical report fed into recent development of the UK Space Industry Act 2018, which proposes legislation for development of space ports in the UK to enable commercial spaceflight. It has recently passed through parliament and received Royal Assent.

As part of his mission to ensure the impact of his research on Earth, Professor Caplan is involved in public outreach activities. He recently led an event called ‘Mission X: Train Like and Astronaut’ at the Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne, in which 45 adults learned about the spinal health risks they face from sedentary lifestyles, following which they used FRED. Of this group, 11 said they would do something related to improving their posture, fitness or back pain, and 5 said they would look into the area more.

Looking forward, Professor Caplan is now preparing to test FRED as a rehabilitation intervention following a NASA/ESA long duration bedrest study. He is also in talks with ESA about making FRED ready for use in space, and is trying to understand how our spines are affected in reduced gravity environments such as the Moon and Mars so that new exercise interventions can be developed for use on these celestial bodies.

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