Loss of physical contact in space alters the dopamine system in C. elegans

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Progressive neuromuscular decline in microgravity is a prominent health concern preventing interplanetary human habitation. We establish functional dopamine-mediated impairments as a consistent feature across multiple spaceflight exposures and during simulated microgravity in C. elegans. Animals grown continuously in these conditions display reduced movement and body length. Loss of mechanical contact stimuli in microgravity elicits decreased endogenous dopamine and comt-4 (catechol-O-methyl transferase) expression levels. The application of exogenous dopamine reverses the movement and body length defects caused by simulated microgravity. In addition, increased physical contact made comt-4 and dopamine levels rise. It also increased muscular cytoplasmic Ca2+ firing. In dop-3 (D2-like receptor) mutants, neither decrease in movement nor in body length were observed during simulated microgravity growth. These results strongly suggest that targeting the dopamine system through manipulation of the external environment (contact stimuli) prevents muscular changes and is a realistic and viable treatment strategy to promote safe human deep-space travel.