The typical Antarctic station offers a unique medical research environment. The population are fit, usually young, eat the same diet, experience the same environment, are isolated from the rest of the world for long periods, and are subject to great seasonal differences in temperatures and sunlight. Current research projects include: microbiological studies on station personnel (see Did You Know, on this page), studies on body rhythms (specifically hormonal-related sleep patterns), healthcare, and the psychology of small groups.

The hormone melatonin is closely associated with regulating sleeping patterns. The long Antarctic night removes the normal melatonin secretion trigger — bright sunlight, thereby affecting sleep. Studies on using bright light to suppress melatonin secretion and on using melatonin tablets to increase the hormone have yielded promising results. Obviously, a method for correcting sleep disturbance is of great social and industrial importance.

Healthcare research at present is concerned with microbubble formation in divers, carbon monoxide effects in field camps and huts, and the effects of diet on health. Understanding how diet and the timing of meals affects secretion patterns for several key hormones is opening up new insights into a problem that affects millions of people worldwide.

All Antarctic station personnel must undergo stringent health checks before they are permitted to head south. How a country performs health checks is largely dependent on cultural attitudes towards health care. Some countries undertake psychological testing (Australia, New Zealand and France), while others require a wide range of chemical and physiological tests (Italy). India is investigating the value of yoga in promoting good health at its Antarctic stations. With increasing movement of scientists between national programs, nations are trying to agree on a standard minimum health check acceptable to all.

"Like a Space Station"

  • Many people expect medical research in Antarctica to be about cold resistance.
  • However, while there is continuing interest in this topic, the real opportunities in Antarctic medical research center around evaluations of social behavior and human physiology in isolated environments.
  • Conditions experienced by Antarctic station personnel during winter are similar to conditions on a space station.
  • Also, of interest to researchers are the characteristics of immunity from common viral, infections–and the existence of viruses–during periods of such isolation.

The Psychology of Small Groups

  • Psychologists are fascinated by the social dynamics of remote groups.
  • In Antarctica, you have an ideal opportunity to study personality characteristics and human interactions.
  • Three features of behavior are of particular interest: job performance, emotional stability, and how well a person integrates within a group.
  • A wide range of tests have been used, and in many countries the conclusions have been incorporated into the screening programs for selecting recruits.

Did You Know?

  • Medical records show that Antarctica is a comparatively healthy place to live.
  • However, living in isolation and far from sources of infection appears to lower natural immunity.
  • Colds or flu can spread rapidly among a station’s overwintering population with the arrival of new personnel at the end of winter.
  • Antarctic stations during winter provide a unique opportunity to study how a disease spreads among people.
  • Using the latest molecular biology techniques, it is possible, on a small station, to characterize every strain of a particular microbe and monitor its development and transmission.
  • Epidemiologists use the rate of evolution of Antarctic microbe strains as a basis against which to examine natural change in microbial populations.

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