Ground-based animal models have been used extensively to understand the effects of microgravity on various physiological systems. Among them, hindlimb suspension (HLS), developed in 1979 in rats, remains the gold-standard and allows researchers to study the consequences of total unloading of the hind limbs while inducing a cephalic fluid shift. While this model has already brought valuable insights to space biology, few studies have directly compared functional decrements in the muscles of males and females during HLS. We exposed 28 adult Wistar rats (14 males and 14 females) to 14 days of HLS or normal loading (NL) to better assess how sex impacts disuse-induced muscle deconditioning. Females better maintained muscle function during HLS than males, as shown by a more moderate reduction in grip strength at 7 days (males: -37.5 ± 3.1%, females: -22.4 ± 6.5%, compared to baseline), that remains stable during the second week of unloading (males: -53.3 ± 5.7%, females: -22.4 ± 5.5%, compared to day 0) while the males exhibit a steady decrease over time (effect of sex × loading p = 0.0002, effect of sex × time × loading p = 0.0099). This was further supported by analyzing the force production in response to a tetanic stimulus. Further functional analyses using force production were also shown to correspond to sex differences in relative loss of muscle mass and CSA. Moreover, our functional data were supported by histomorphometric analyzes, and we highlighted differences in relative muscle loss and CSA. Specifically, female rats seem to experience a lesser muscle deconditioning during disuse than males thus emphasizing the need for more studies that will assess male and female animals concomitantly to develop tailored, effective countermeasures for all astronauts.

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Published in Physiological Reports, v. 9, issue 19, e15042

© 2021 The Authors

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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This work was supported by a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA: 80 NSSC19K1598, PI: SBR) and the Stamps Scholarship (IDS).