An international team led by the University of Antwerp in Belgium recently studied the brains of Russian astronauts after they had been in space for about 172 days. Their new study shows that the brains of astronauts are essentially rewired during lengthy trips to outer space. This helps them adapt to the unusual environment.
The study was funded by the European Space Agency and Roscomos. It forms the foundation for future research into the full effects of brain changes as a result of space travel. Understanding the effects of long-term exposure to outer space is crucial as humans expand their exploration of space and spend increasingly longer times in orbit.
The study shows significant microstructural changes in several white matter tracts including sensorimotor tracts, which are responsible for sensory, motor, and processing functions. This is the part of the brain that communicates between gray matter and the body, in addition to communicating between various gray matter regions.
Researchers used a brain imaging technique called fiber tractography to study brain structure and function after returning from space.
“Fiber tractography gives a sort of wiring scheme of the brain. Our study is the first to use this specific method to detect changes in brain structure after spaceflight,” said lead author Dr. Floris Wuyts, according to the Daily Mail.
First author Andrei Doroshin of Drexel University expanded on the study’s findings.
“We found changes in the neural connections between several motor areas of the brain,” said Doroshin. “Motor areas are brain centers where commands for movements are initiated. In weightlessness, an astronaut needs to adapt his or her movement strategies drastically, compared to Earth. Our study shows that their brain is rewired, so to speak.”
Follow-up imaging scans conducted seven months after astronauts returned to Earth revealed that the changes from spaceflight were still visible in their brains. They observed changes in structural shapes, which is different than changing the actual structure of the brain.
“This puts the findings in a different perspective,” said Dr. Wuyts.
Countermeasures already exist for correcting muscle and bone loss experienced by astronauts, such as exercising for at least two hours a day. Future research, upheld by this study, may turn up evidence that countermeasures are also necessary to protect astronauts’ brains.
“These results contribute to our overall understanding of what’s going on in the brains of space travelers. It’s crucial to maintain this line of research, looking for spaceflight induced brain changes from different perspectives and using different techniques,” said Dr. Wuyts.
The study’s findings have been published in the journal Frontiers in Neural Circuits.