Study finds space travel influences brain function

WASHINGTON: Scientists from the University of Antwerp and the University of Liège have discovered how the human brain changes and adapts to weightlessness, after being in space for 6 months.
Some of the changes have proven to be lasting – even after 8 months back on Earth. Raphaël Liégeois, soon to be the third Belgian in space, recognizes the importance of research, “to prepare the new generation of astronauts for longer missions”.
A child learning not to drop a drink on the floor or a tennis player predicting the path of an incoming ball to hit it with precision are examples of how the brain integrates the physical laws of gravity to function optimally on Earth. Astronauts going into space reside in a weightless environment, where the brain’s rules about gravity no longer apply.
A new study of brain function in cosmonauts has revealed how brain organization is altered after a six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS), demonstrating the adaptation needed to live in weightlessness.
The University of Antwerp is leading this scientific project BRAIN-DTI through the European Space Agency. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data was taken from 14 astronauts’ brains before and several times after their mission in space.
Using a special MRI technique, the researchers collected the brain data of the astronauts at rest, so without them engaging in a specific task. This resting-state functional MRI technique allowed researchers to study the brain’s default state and determine whether or not it changes after long-duration spaceflight.
Learning effect
In collaboration with the University of Liège, recent analyzes of resting brain activity have revealed how functional connectivity, a marker of how activity in certain areas of the brain correlates with activity in others , changes in specific regions.
“We found that connectivity was impaired after spaceflight in regions that support the integration of different types of information, rather than processing a single type each time, such as visual, auditory, or motion information. “, say Steven Jillings and Floris Wuyts (University of Antwerp). “Additionally, we found that some of these altered communication patterns were retained throughout the 8 months back on Earth. At the same time, some brain changes returned to the level of how areas functioned before the space mission.”
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 levels of severity.
“This dataset is so special that their participants themselves. In 2016, we were historically the first to show how spaceflight can affect the brain function of a single cosmonaut. A few years later, we are now in a unique position to investigate the brains of more astronauts, repeatedly. Thus, we are all the more confident in deciphering the potential of the human brain”, says Dr. co-director of this work.
New generation of astronauts
“Understanding the physiological and behavioral changes triggered by weightlessness is essential for planning human space exploration. Therefore, mapping changes in brain function using neuroimaging techniques as done in this work is a step important to prepare the new generation of astronauts for longer missions”, comments Raphael Liégeois, Doctor of Engineering Sciences (ULiège) with a Thesis in the field of Neurosciences, future ESA Astronaut.
The researchers are excited about the results, although they know this is only the first step in furthering our understanding of brain communication changes after space travel. For example, we still need to investigate what the exact behavioral consequence of these brain communication changes is, we need to understand whether longer time spent in outer space might influence these observations, and whether brain characteristics might be useful in selecting future astronauts or monitor them during and after space travel.

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