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stories from the wilder side of science

5. One Year in Bed (1986)

from "The Mad Science Book" by Reto U. Schneider

It sounds like the ideal job for coach potatoes: the 11 men who were selected to take part in this experiment in January 1986 were required to go to bed and lie there – for a whole year. They spent 370 days and nights in this position, without ever getting up or even sitting up. They were washed lying down, and ate, read, watched television and wrote letters in a prone position. Boris Morukov (picture avove) from the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow wanted to find out what happens to a person during a long journey in weightless conditions. Morukov is a physician and a cosmonaut.

Bed-rest studies were instituted in the 1960s, as astronauts began to spend ever longer periods in space (the picture below shows tests at a bed rest study in Japan). Before long, the question arose of what effect the lack of gravity has on the human body. Since there is no possibility on Earth of keeping a body in weightless conditions for a protracted period, the effect had to be simulated. And the simplest method of doing so was to place a test subject in a bed that was tilted back towards the headboard at an angle of six degrees.

Such a position has a similar effect on the body to weightlessness: the heart no longer has to work against gravity and so switches to a slower rate, the muscles and skeleton have hardly any load on them and are partially metabolized, and the red blood cell count decreases, because the body is doing less work and so requires less oxygen. The first bed-rest studies lasted a few days, but later ones stretched to a few weeks or even two or three months. But thee 370 days of the Moscow study went way beyond anything that had been done before.

It’s hard to say what induced the 11 men to take part in the experiment. Was it, as Morukov believes, the urge to make a contribution to science? Or the decorations that the Soviet state handed out for such achievements? Or maybe the car that each of them had been promised? As Morukov says, “It was still the Soviet era then, and getting hold of a car wasn’t easy.” In any event, the participants took the study very seriously. Only one of them quit the experiment, after three months – he already owned a car.

The purpose of the experiment was to test new ways of preventing the body from degenerating. The test subjects did weight training exercises while lying down or went for a walk on a vertical treadmill placed in front of the bed. Five of the men were only allowed to do these exercises after four months in bed. This was designed to simulate the eventuality of training being suspended for a long period in space due to illness or a loss of power in the spacecraft.

After four months, eight months, and at the end of the study, the men were put into a centrifuge as they lay on their beds and subjected to eight times the ‘g’ force they would normally experience on Earth. This is the kind of acceleration that is encountered at the end of a spaceflight when the capsule reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. Once the year was over, there was a two-month period of rehabilitation: the bed cosmonauts had to relearn sitting and walking.

Greater than the strain on their bodies was the psychological stress. The men were put up in groups in three different rooms, where they spent their time watching TV and reading. Initially, they planned to learn a foreign language during their stay, but gave this up after two weeks. Even having their food served, in proper spaceman fashion, in aluminium canisters didn’t brighten their mood. But at least it helped furnish them with a hobby: shackled to their beds, they started making ships from the aluminium containers, or medals for the nurses. They made a knight in shining armour as a present for Morukov. On their birthdays, they gave each other presents, while they celebrated public holidays by throwing parties, in so far as they were able to while lying flat.

The boredom and the constant medical examinations also led to tensions. The occupants of one five-man room fell out with one another so badly that one of them had to be moved out. “Otherwise, something unfortunate might have happened,”recalls Morukov, who also replaced medical personnel whom the men didn’t get on with. “The one thing I couldn’t do without was the men.”

The participants were aged between 27 and 42, and several of them were doctors themselves. Most had wives and children, whom they only got to see once a week, on Sundays. Some marriages didn’t survive the strain. And one of the men fell in love with a researcher who was working on the project.

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