Space travel affects the way the brain works — ScienceDaily

Researchers at the University of Antwerp and the University of Liège have found out how the human brain changes and adapts to weightlessness, after being in space for 6 months. Some of the changes proved to be permanent – even after 8 months back on Earth. Raphaël Liégeois, who will soon be the third Belgian in space, recognizes the importance of the research, “to prepare the new generation of astronauts for longer missions.”

A child learning not to drop a glass on the floor, or a tennis player predicting the course of an incoming ball in order to hit it accurately, are examples of how the brain incorporates the physical laws of gravity to function optimally on Earth. Astronauts who go to space live in a weightless environment, where the brain’s rules about gravity no longer apply. A new study on brain function in cosmonauts has revealed how the brain’s organization changes after a six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS), demonstrating the adaptation required to live in weightlessness.

The University of Antwerp has led this BRAIN-DTI scientific project through the European Space Agency. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data was taken from 14 astronauts’ brains before and several times after their mission to space. Using a special MRI technique, the researchers collected the astronauts’ brain data in a resting state, therefore without them being engaged in a specific task. This resting-state functional MRI technique enabled the researchers to examine the brain’s default state and determine whether or not this changes after long-term space travel.

Learning effect

In collaboration with the University of Liège, recent analyzes of brain activity at rest revealed how functional connectivity, a marker of how activity in some brain areas is correlated with activity in others, changes in specific regions.

“We found that connectivity changed after space travel in regions that support the integration of different types of information, rather than handling only one type at a time, such as visual, auditory or movement information”, say Steven Jillings and Floris Wuyts (University). from Antwerp). “We also found that some of these altered communication patterns were retained through 8 months after being back on Earth. At the same time, some brain changes returned to the level of how the areas functioned before spaceflight.”

Both scenarios of changes are plausible: retained changes in brain communication may indicate a learning effect, while transient changes may indicate more acute adaptation to altered gravity levels.

“This data set is as special as its participants themselves. Back in 2016, we were historically the first to show how space travel can affect brain function in a single cosmonaut. A few years later, we are now in a unique position to examine the brains of multiple astronauts, several times. Therefore, we decipher the potential of the human brain all the more in confidence,” says Dr. Athena Demertzi (GIGA Institute, University of Liège), co-supervisor of this work.

New generation of astronauts

“Understanding physiological and behavioral changes triggered by weightlessness is key to planning human space exploration. Therefore, mapping changes in brain function using neuroimaging techniques as done in this work is an important step in preparing the new generation of astronauts for longer missions,” comments Raphaël Liégeois, doctor of engineering (ULiège) with a thesis in neuroscience, future ESA astronaut.

The researchers are excited about the results, although they know it is only the first step in pursuing our understanding of changes in brain communication after spaceflight. For example, we still need to investigate the exact behavioral consequence of these brain communication changes, we need to understand whether extended time spent in space may influence these observations, and whether brain characteristics may be useful for selecting future astronauts or monitoring them during and after spaceflight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *