Space flights are not for the weak. The first results of NASA’s Gemini study, released this week, noted that space travel physically impacts astronaut’s at various levels, even in changes in gene expression. Now a group of scientists from the University of Michigan released a survey that suggests that spaceflight changes the brains of astronauts.
The team studied 26 astronaut’s who spent varying amounts of time in space between 2008 and 2012. Of those, 12 spent two weeks as crew members, while the remaining 14 spent six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS). After examining MRI scans of astronaut’s made before, during and after space flights, researchers found that everyone experienced both an increase and a decrease in the volume of gray matter in different regions of the brain.
What happens due to space travel?
Gray matter is responsible for many essential functions, such as muscle control, emotions, memory, and sensory perception.
Of course, those who spent more time in dramatically impacted. The scientist’s group’s findings published on December 19, 2016, in Nature Microgravity.
“Some of the areas have decreased gray matter volume, and I do not want anyone to think that it means that when you go into space, you lose brain cells,” Rachel Seidler, a professor at the University of Michigan. “The losses are coming from changes in the brain fluid that happen with the flight.”
More specifically, changes in gray matter volume appear due to microgravity, which describes the slightest presence of gravity aboard the ISS.
“Imagine gravity pulling all the fluids down to your feet, and in space, you do not see that happening,” Seidler said. “There is more fluid toward his head – you must have seen pictures of astronauts they have swollen faces in space – but there is a change in the fluid of the brain as well.”
The group found that during space flight the volume of gray matter increased in small regions of the brain that control the movement of the legs, which could reflect how your brain retains the body when it comes to microgravity. In other areas of the brain, gray matter volume decreased, possibly due to a redistribution of cerebrospinal fluid that coats central nervous system.
Surprisingly, we know almost nothing about how space affects the brain. This study is the first to analyze how the brain structure can change because of microgravity. Although it is not yet clear how – or if – the volume of gray matter of the astronaut’s studied returned to pre-trip levels, Steidler is conducting a separate study that looks at the astronaut’s’ brains in the six months following restitution of space.
Is Astronaut Safe after Space Travel?
“Because of the amount of exercise they’re doing now, the astronauts are coming back with their muscles and bones well protected,” Seidler said. “But the brain is still a mystery. We still do not have the follow-up data available to see how long it takes for the brain to recover. ”
With some big ambitions of earthlings to go to Mars, it is important to understand how extended periods in space can affect the human body. But this research may also be central to understanding health conditions here on Earth. Seidler said that such studies might help medical professionals better understand brain disorders such as normal pressure hydrocephalus, which is caused by an accumulation of fluid in the brain.
“It’s fascinating to use this as a model for studying the maximum capacity for neuroplasticity in a healthy brain,” he explained. “It’s an important model for understanding how the brain can change in an environment it has never been in.”
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