From the development of space anemia to muscle atrophy or loss of bone density, space travel alters astronauts’ bodies in different ways. Now, a new study has found space travelers’ brains seem to be “rewired” and these changes can linger for months after they return to Earth, reports Chelsea Gohd for Espace.com.
The astronauts in the study stayed in space for an average of five and a half months. Their brains showed fluid changes — our brains are about 80% water — and an increase in gray and white matter in the brain, reports David Nield for Scientific alert. The changes may help the brain adapt to the weightlessness of outer space.
Previous research has shown that spaceflight can alter the shape and function of an adult’s brain. The study, published this month in Boundaries in Neural Circuits, is the first to detail and study structural changes in white matter after space travel. White matter is responsible for communication between gray matter and the body, a statement explains.
“Motor areas are brain centers where movement commands are initiated,” study author Andrei Doroshin, a researcher at Drexel University’s Neuroimaging Laboratory, said in a statement. “In weightlessness, an astronaut must drastically adapt his movement strategies, relative to the Earth. Our study shows that his brain is rewired, so to speak.”
The researchers used MRI brain imaging techniques like fiber tractography to see structure and connectivity in the brains of 12 astronauts from Roscosmos in Russia and the European Space Agency. All the astronauts had traveled to space and stayed there for an average of 172 days (five and a half months) before returning to Earth, reports Marisa Dellatto for Forbes.
The team specifically used fiber tractography for the imaging because it shows the details of brain wiring. “MRI examines the structure at the level [of] gray matter (like the microprocessors in a PC) and white matter (the connections on the motherboard of a PC, between all the processing units). MRI also looks at fluid in the brain, called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF),” study author Floris Wuyts, a space physiologist at the University of Antwerp, explains for Space.com.
Scans of astronaut’s neural networks were taken before they blasted off into space, as soon as they landed safely at home, and some cosmonauts underwent an additional brain scan seven months after their return on earth. When analyzing the images, neurologists saw key changes in neural connections between several motor areas of the brain and an altered corpus callosum due to fluid changes in the brain, Espace.com reports. The corpus callosum is a communication network filled with cerebrospinal fluid that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This area expands during space travel because it is filled with fluid, a statement explains.
NASA has been studying what happens to the human body in space for over 50 years. According to a statement, studying the effects of spaceflight on the human body can help prepare astronauts for long-term destinations, such as the moon and Mars. This research could potentially allow scientists to further protect the brains of astronauts during space travel, for Espace.com.
“These findings give us additional pieces of the whole puzzle,” Wuyts said in a statement. “Because this research is so pioneering, we don’t yet know what the whole puzzle will look like. These findings contribute to our overall understanding of what’s going on in the brains of space travelers.”