The brains of astronauts were “rebuilt” during space missions

A new study is published in Boundaries in neural circuits first analyzes structural changes in communication that occur in the brain after a long space flight. The results show significant microstructural changes in several white matter pathways, such as sensorimotor. The study could be the basis for future research into the full range of brain changes during human space exploration.

Our brains can change and adapt in structure and functioning throughout life. As human space exploration reaches new horizons, understanding the impact of spaceflight on the human brain is crucial. Previous research has shown that space flight can change both the shape and function of the adult brain.

As part of a joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos, a team of international researchers led by Dr. Floris Vuyts of the University of Antwerp studied the brains of people traveling in space.

Wuits and colleagues first investigated structural changes in the brain after space travel at the level of deep brain white matter pathways.

White matter refers to the parts of the brain that are responsible for the connection between gray matter and the body, as well as between different areas of gray matter. In short, white matter is the communication channel of the brain, and gray matter is the place where information is processed.

Scientific brain

To study the structure and function of the brain after space flight, the researchers used a brain imaging technique called fiber tractography.

“Fiber tractography provides a kind of wiring diagram of the brain. Our study is the first to use this specific method to detect changes in brain structure after a space flight, ”Wuits explained.

Wuits and his team received diffusion MRI (dMRI) of 12 male astronauts before and immediately after their spaceflight. They also collected the next eight scans seven months after the space flight. All astronauts participated in long missions for an average of 172 days.

Researchers have found evidence of the concept of the “scientist brain”; in other words, the level of neuroplasticity of the brain must adapt to space flight. “We found changes in the neural connections between several motor areas of the brain,” said first author Andrei Doroshin of Drexel University. “Motor zones are the centers of the brain where movement commands are initiated. In weightlessness the astronaut needs to radically adapt his movement strategies compared to Earth. Our research shows that their brains are, so to speak, rebuilt. ”

Subsequent scans showed that seven months after returning to Earth, these changes were still visible.

“From previous research, we know that these motor zones show signs of adaptation after space flight. Now we have the first signs that this is also reflected in the level of ties between these regions, ”Vuyts continued.

The authors also find an explanation for the anatomical shifts of the brain that are observed after space flight.

“Initially we thought we found a change in corpus callosum, which is the central highway that connects both hemispheres of the brain, ”Wuitz explained. The corpus callosum adjacent to the ventricles of the brain, a communication network of fluid-filled chambers that expand due to spaceflight.

“The structural changes we initially discovered in corpus callosum are actually caused by enlargement of the stomach, which causes anatomical shifts in the adjacent nerve tissue, ”Wuits said. “Where it was originally thought that real structural changes take place in the brain, we only observe changes in shape. This puts the conclusions in a different perspective. “

The future of space flight research

The study illustrates the need to understand how spaceflight affects our bodies, particularly through long-term studies of the impact on the human brain. There are modern countermeasures for losing muscle and bone mass, such as exercising for at least two hours a day. Future research may provide evidence that countermeasures are needed for the brain.

“These findings give us additional pieces of the whole puzzle. Because this study is so groundbreaking, we don’t yet know what the whole puzzle will look like. These results contribute to our common understanding of what is going on in the brains of space travelers. It is very important to support this area of ​​research, looking for changes in the brain caused by space flight, from different points of view and using different methods, “- said Wuits.

Information: “Changes in brain connectivity in space travelers after a long space flight” by Andrei Doroshin, Stephen Gillings, Ben Eurysen, Elena Tamilovskaya, Ekaterina Pechenkova, Ina Nosikova, Elena Rumiyskaya, Rumshila Khchilovi Dzhilova and Lyudmila Khmiva Lima Laureis, Victor Petrovich, Angelique Van Ombergen, Jitka Anne, Stefan Sunart, Paul M. Parisel, Valentin Sinitsyn, Peter zu Eilenburg, Karol Asipovich and Floris L. Vuyts, February 18, 2022, Boundaries in neural circuits.
DOI: 10.3389 / fncir.2022.815838 The brains of astronauts were “rebuilt” during space missions

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