An upper arm model for simulated weightlessness


Allen C. Parcell PhD Brigham Young University, Human Performance Research Centre, Department of Physical Education, 119 Richards Building, Provo, Utah 84602, USA.


This investigation examined the effects of 4 weeks of non-dominant arm unloading on the functional and structural characteristics of the triceps brachii muscle of six normo-active college-age males (age: 23 ± 1 years, height: 176 ± 4 cm, weight: 76 ± 6 kg). The primary intention of this study was to determine if arm unloading is an effective analogue for simulating the effects of weightlessness on human skeletal muscle. Subjects were tested 2–3 days preceding unloading in a standard arm sling and following removal of the sling. The sling was worn during waking hours to unload the arm. Subjects were allowed to remove the sling during sleep and bathing. Torque production (Nm) during maximal isometric extension at 90° significantly declined (P < 0.05) in response to unloading (53.93 ± 5.07 to 47.90 ± 5.92; 12%). There was no significant change (P > 0.05) in the force–velocity attributes of the triceps over the other measured velocities (1.05, 1.57, 2.09, 3.14, 4.19, 5.24 rad·s–1). Cross-sectional muscle area (CSA) of the upper arm was smaller (44.3 ± 2.7 to 42.4 ± 2.5 cm2; 4%) following 4 weeks of unloading (P < 0.05). Histochemical analysis of individual muscle fibres demonstrated reductions in fibre CSA of 27 and 18% for type I and type II fibres, respectively. However, these changes were not statistically significant. Electrophoretic analysis of muscle samples revealed a significant increase (40 ± 7 to 58 ± 4%, pre- and post-, respectively) in myosin heavy chain (MHC) type II isoforms following unloading. Reductions in type I MHC isoform composition failed to reach statistical significance (P < 0.08). Amplitude of the integrated electromyographic (IEMG) signal during maximal isometric contraction of the long head of the triceps decreased by 21% in response to the 4-week unloading period (P < 0.05). The changes in triceps, muscle structure and function found with arm unloading are similar in magnitude and direction to data obtained from humans following exposure to real and simulated weightlessness. These findings demonstrate that arm unloading produces some of the effects seen in response to weightlessness in muscles of the upper arm and provides potential for an additional model to simulate the effects of microgravity on human skeletal muscle.