Space Travel Literally Rewires Your Brain

Photo Credit: ALFRED PASIEKA/SCIENTIFIC PHOTO LIBRARY – Getty Images

  • An international team of researchers performed brain scans on 12 cosmonauts before and after their space missions and discovered microstructural changes in the brain.

  • Scientists have long searched for answers to a curious illness linked to spaceflight: a type of brain swelling called intracranial pressure.

  • The research could help scientists and engineers develop new techniques and instruments to deal with increases in intracranial pressure during long-duration missions to the Moon or Mars.

Since the early days of the Mercury missions in the late 1950s, astronauts have described the impact that viewing Earth from space has had on them. In addition to a mind-blowing change in perspective, evidence has shown that long-duration space travel can also literally rewire a space traveler’s brain.

New research from an international team of scientists, led by Floris Wuyts of the University of Antwerp in Belgium, has revealed changes in the brains of 12 Russian cosmonauts who had spent, on average, around 172 days in space . The findings add to decades of research into the impact of long periods of time in space on the human body.

“Spaceflight has the potential to profoundly alter both the function and form of the adult brain. While the physiological effects of spaceflight have been studied for many decades, research into the effects of spaceflight on the brain is still in its infancy,” the team wrote in a February article published in the journal Boundaries in Neural Circuits. “The human desire to increase our exploration of space exacerbates the need to understand the effects of spaceflight on the human brain.”

Wuyts and his team performed a type of brain scan called diffusion magnetic resonance analysis, or dMRI, on cosmonauts before they traveled to space. Then they followed up with additional brain scans seven months later, after the cosmonauts returned to Earth. For the first time ever on space travelers, the team also used an imaging technique called fiber tractography, which builds a 3D model of brain neurons. This allowed them to analyze how spaceflight rewires the connections between neurons, called neural pathways, and led them to discover widespread structural changes in the pathways that control certain sensory and motor functions.

Similar studies conducted on American astronauts have shed light on the impact of microgravity on the brain. A 2020 study published in the journal North American Radiological Society revealed the volume of white matter, or nerve bundles found deep in the brain, that grew while the astronauts were in space. He also found that the shape of the pea-sized pituitary gland, which sits at the base of the skull and regulates the body’s many hormone-secreting glands, has distorted into orbit. These changes indicate an increase in intracranial pressure in orbit. Perhaps more troubling, the side effects lasted a year after the astronauts returned home.

On Earth, gravity helps draw bodily fluids to the lower extremities, relieving pressure on the brain; but in the absence of gravity, these fluids migrate to the brain.

This intracranial pressure could also explain another common condition among astronauts: vision problems. Astronauts and cosmonauts have complained of eye problems since the early days of the shuttle program. Researchers raced to understand the condition, known as visual impairment/intracranial pressure syndrome, or VIIP.

A 2021 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology compared images of the eye structures of two male astronauts before and after spending a year in space. While the shape and structure of their eyes remained largely the same, the team of NASA scientists found evidence of swelling in the optic nerve, the group of neurons responsible for transferring visual information from retina to the brain. The team also discovered that one of the astronauts had developed folds in the choroid, the layer of blood vessels and tissue between the retina and the sclera.

We are far from fully understanding the myriad ways in which prolonged stays in microgravity can alter the human brain. One of the benefits of the rise of private spaceflight is that the pool of potential research subjects is expanding.

But as access to space increases, so does the need to protect those who venture there. NASA, its partner agencies, and research institutes around the world are working on technology to help limit the impacts of microgravity on the body.

For example, NASA has partnered with outdoor retailer REI to develop a space “sleeping bag” that uses suction to relieve some of the pressure in the head and torso by drawing fluids back to the lower extremities. . Several teams are working to develop artificial gravity, the holy grail of all solutions, often found in countless science fiction stories, but it’s an incredibly complicated and expensive undertaking.

Until we develop a magic bullet that allows us to escape the perils of microgravity, we’re stuck exploring the effects of spaceflight on the brain.

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