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Lumbopelvic adaptations to microgravity: maintenance and recovery of spinal health through in-flight countermeasures and post-flight reconditioning (Ref: MRDF22/HLS/SPACE/CAPLAN)

   Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

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  Prof N Caplan  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This studentship will explore the role of a range of countermeasures used during or after exposure to microgravity to determine their effectiveness in mitigating the negative effects of microgravity in the lumbopelvic muscles that are vital to maintaining healthy spines. The successful applicant will have the unique opportunity to work with a multidisciplinary international team, led by Northumbria University’s Professor Nick Caplan, that has been accepted onto two European Space Agency (ESA) microgravity research platforms: (1) the ESA Artificial Gravity (AG) Bedrest campaign (testing in Planica, Slovenia) and (2) the ESA Pre-/Post-International Space Station (ISS) campaign (testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre and ESA’s European Astronaut Centre). Through these campaigns, The Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation Laboratory at Northumbria University will be the first to examine the role of AG exposure on a short-arm centrifuge, supplemented by resistive vibration exercise, on the prevention of lumbopelvic muscle atrophy, intervertebral disc changes, spinal posture, upright balance, movement quality, back pain, and gait adaptations to long-duration exposure to simulated microgravity (bedrest), as well as the effects of actual microgravity (ISS) exposure in astronauts on the same outcomes. Our hope is that these data will identify easily obtainable biomarkers that can predict those who either already have lumbopelvic deconditioning, or those that are most at risk of developing lumbopelvic deconditioning following a period of disuse, to inform the development of simple, affordable tools that can be used for routine lumbopelvic/spinal health monitoring for people back on Earth.

The research will assess how exposure to simulated or actual microgravity leads to adaptations in lumbopelvic muscle, spinal structure and function, posture, movement control and pain, through 3D kinematic, electrophysiological, movement screening and medical imaging analyses during upright posture, walking gait, and pain questionnaires. We will perform these analyses (1) before, immediately after, and a few months after 60 days of head-down tilt bedrest, and (2) before and immediately after 6 months on ISS, and approximately 4 weeks and a few months after the astronauts return to Earth.

This research will require a blend of expertise suitable for the collection and high-level analysis (e.g. using Matlab) of physiological and biomechanical data. Direct experience of human testing is not a pre-requisite as the successful applicant will work closely with our expert team during testing. As well as testing at ESA and NASA facilities, other associated studies will likely be undertaken in our UK laboratory.

Applications are welcome from a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, computer science, biomechanics, physiology, medical sciences, or any other related discipline. Applicants must be willing to travel overseas to support the team in data collection at ESA and NASA research facilities.

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see 

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. MRDF22/…) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2021

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Informal enquiries to Prof. Nick Caplan ([Email Address Removed]).

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


• De Martino, E., Tran, V., Hides, J., Cable, G., Elliott, J., Hoggarth, M., Zange, J., Lindsay, K... & Caplan, N. (in press). Gluteal muscle atrophy and increased intramuscular lipid concentration are not mitigated by daily artificial gravity following 60-day head-down tilt bed rest. Frontiers in Physiology.
• De Martino, E., Salomoni, S. E., Hodges, P. W., Hides, J., Lindsay, K., Debuse, D., ... & Caplan, N. (2021). Intermittent short-arm centrifugation is a partially effective countermeasure against upright balance deterioration following 60-day head-down tilt bed rest. Journal of Applied Physiology, 131(2), 689-701.
• De Martino, E., Hides, J., Elliott, J. M., Hoggarth, M., Zange, J., Lindsay, K., ... & Caplan, N. (2021). Lumbar muscle atrophy and increased relative intramuscular lipid concentration are not mitigated by daily artificial gravity after 60-day head-down tilt bedrest. Journal of Applied Physiology.
• Lindsay, K., Caplan, N., Weber, T., Salomoni, S., De Martino, E., Winnard, A., ... & Debuse, D. (2020). Effects of a six-week exercise intervention on function, pain and lumbar multifidus muscle cross-sectional area in chronic low back pain: A proof-of-concept study. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 49, 102190.
• Sandal, P. H., Kim, D., Fiebig, L., Winnard, A., Caplan, N., Green, D. A., & Weber, T. (2020). Effectiveness of nutritional countermeasures in microgravity and its ground-based analogues to ameliorate musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary deconditioning–A Systematic Review. PloS one, 15(6), e0234412.
• Laws, J. M., Caplan, N., Bruce, C., McGrogan, C., Lindsay, K., Wild, B., ... & Winnard, A. (2020). Systematic review of the technical and physiological constraints of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that affect the capability of astronauts to exercise effectively during spaceflight. Acta Astronautica, 170, 665-677.
• De Martino, E., Salomoni, S. E., Winnard, A., McCarty, K., Lindsay, K., Riazati, S., ... & Caplan, N. (2020). Hypogravity reduces trunk admittance and lumbar muscle activation in response to external perturbations. Journal of Applied Physiology, 128(4), 1044-1055.
• Konda, N. N., Karri, R. S., Winnard, A., Nasser, M., Evetts, S., Boudreau, E., Caplan, N., Gradwell, D. & Velho, R. M. (2019). A comparison of exercise interventions from bed rest studies for the prevention of musculoskeletal loss. npj Microgravity, 5(1), 1-11.
• Weber, T., Salomoni, S. E., Debuse, D., Hug, F., Caplan, N., De Martino, E., ... & Hodges, P. (2018). Functional behaviour of spinal muscles after training with an exercise device developed to recruit and train postural muscles. Gait & posture, 66, 189-193.
• Winnard, A., Nasser, M., Debuse, D., Stokes, M., Evetts, S., Wilkinson, M., ... & Caplan, N. (2017). Systematic review of countermeasures to minimise physiological changes and risk of injury to the lumbopelvic area following long-term microgravity. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 27, S5-S14.
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