Here's How Space Travel Changes the Brain
Science & Tech / /
Spending some time in space can cause striking changes in a brain structure. These changes may help in explaining some of the unusual symptoms that astronauts experience after returning to Earth.
The study was based on scanning the brains of 34 astronauts before and after they went and spent time in space. 8 of the astronauts participated in long-duration missions (six months on average), and the rest participated in short-duration missions (about two weeks) in space shuttle flights.
The results from the brain scans showed that most astronauts who were part of long-duration missions, after returning from space, had several key changes to their brain's structure. One of those were the shift of their brains upward in their skulls, which caused narrowing of the cerebrospinal fluid (a clear liquid flowing between the brain and its outer covering, and between the spinal cord and its outer covering) spaces at the top of the brain. On the other side, none of the astronauts on short-duration missions experienced such a brain change.
As Live Science reports, the scans showed that 94% of the astronauts on long-duration missions had a narrowing of their brain's central sulcus, a groove near the top of the brain that separates the frontal and parietal lobes. Only 19% of astronauts who participated in short-duration flights showed a narrowing of their central sulcus.
"The changes we have seen may explain unusual symptoms experienced by returning space station astronauts and help identify key issues in the planning of longer-duration space exploration, including missions to Mars," said study co-author Dr. Michael Antonucci, a neuroradiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina.
The new findings in particular may help researchers to better understand a condition known as "visual impairment intracranial pressure syndrome," or VIIP syndrome, seen in some astronauts after coming back to Earth. The symptoms of this condition are poorer vision after their space travel, an increase in pressure inside the skull, along with swelling of the eye's optic disk.
Three of the astronauts participating in the study experienced the symptoms of VIIP syndrome. All three experienced a narrowing of the central sulcus. One of them also had imaging available to show that there was an upward shift in the position of the brain.
The researchers set up a hypothesis according to which an upward brain shift, along with "crowding" of tissue at the top of the brain, may cause obstruction of cerebrospinal fluid flow, resulting in optic-nerve swelling and increasing pressure in the skull. But, as researchers said, they will need more detailed brain imaging in order to prove the hypothesis.
The researchers hope their studies will help them give better explanation for the side-effects of long-term space travel on the brain, and find ways to make space travel safer.
"Exposure to the space environment has permanent effects on humans that we simply do not understand," Roberts said. "What astronauts experience in space must be mitigated to produce safer space travel."
Source: Live Svience