Astronauts' brains rewire during long-duration spaceflight

Astronauts’ brains rewire during long-duration spaceflight

Astronauts’ brains “rewire” during long-duration spaceflight to help them adapt to unusual environments, according to a new study.

An international team led by the University of Antwerp in Belgium studied the brains of Russian cosmonauts who spent an average of 172 days in space.

The brain changes and adapts both in structure and function throughout our lives, but this new study has shown that the effects of spaceflight can bring about changes of their own.

The results show significant microstructural changes in several white matter tracts, such as the sensorimotor tracts responsible for sensation, motility, and processing.

The study, funded by the European Space Agency and Roscomos, will form the basis for future studies of the full spectrum of brain changes during space travel.

The names of the astronauts who participated in the study are not named by the researchers.

Astronauts' brains

Astronauts’ brains “rewire” during long-duration spaceflight to help them adapt to unusual environments, according to a new study. Artist’s impression of the moon landing

As humans explore new horizons in space, like spending more time in low Earth orbit and traveling to the moon and back to Mars, understanding the impact of space travel on the human brain is critical, scientists say.

Previous research has shown that spaceflight can change both the shape and function of the adult brain.

Lead author, Dr. Floris Wuyts and colleagues, investigated structural changes in the brain after spaceflight at the level of white matter pathways in the deep brain.

This is the part of the brain that is responsible for the communication between the gray matter and the body, as well as between different areas of the gray matter.

In short, white matter is the brain’s communication channel, and gray matter is where information is processed.

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

The brain changes and adapts both in structure and function throughout our lives, but a new study has shown that the effects of space travel can bring about changes of their own.

The brain changes and adapts both in structure and function throughout our lives, but a new study has shown that the effects of space travel can bring about changes of their own.

“Tractography of fibers gives a kind of wire diagram of the brain. Our study is the first to use this specific method to detect changes in brain structure after spaceflight,” explained Dr. Wuyts.

WHEN WILL PEOPLE VISIT MARS?

For decades, humans have sought to set foot on Mars.

Every generation of NASA astronauts has been told since the Apollo moon landings that they could be the first to set foot on the Red Planet.

The Artemis generation chosen to go to the Moon this decade is the first where this could very well be the case.

NASA plans to land the first humans on Mars by the mid-2030s, which is in line with the deadline set by China.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has more ambitious plans, hoping to send a crewed starship to build a base on Mars by the end of this decade.

Wuyts and his team obtained diffusion MRI (dMRI) scans of 12 male astronauts before and immediately after their space flights. They also made eight follow-up scans seven months after the spaceflight.

All cosmonauts sent into space by the Russian space agency Roskosmos participated in long-duration flights averaging 172 days.

Researchers have found support for the concept of a “learned brain,” which is the level of neuroplasticity that the brain must adapt to space travel.

“We found changes in neural connections between several motor areas of the brain,” said first author, Dr. Andrey Doroshin of Drexel University.

“Motor areas are brain centers where commands for movement are initiated. In weightlessness, the astronaut needs to radically adapt his propulsion strategies compared to the Earth.

“Our study shows that their brains are, so to speak, reprogrammed.”

Follow-up scans seven months after their return to Earth showed that the changes that occurred after spaceflight were still visible in the brain.

“We know from previous studies that these motor regions show signs of adaptation after spaceflight. Now we have the first signs that this is also reflected in the level of connections between these regions,” said Dr. Wuyts.

The authors also found an explanation for the anatomical shifts in the brain observed after spaceflight.

An international team led by the University of Antwerp in Belgium studied the brains of Russian cosmonauts who spent an average of 172 days in space.

An international team led by the University of Antwerp in Belgium studied the brains of Russian cosmonauts who spent an average of 172 days in space.

“Originally, we thought we had found changes in the corpus callosum, which is the central artery that connects both hemispheres of the brain,” Dr. Wuyts explained.

The corpus callosum is bordered by the ventricles of the brain, a communicating network of fluid-filled chambers that expand due to space flight.

“The structural changes that we initially found in the corpus callosum are actually caused by ventricular expansion, which causes anatomical shifts in the adjacent neural tissue,” Dr. Wuyts said.

“Where it was originally thought that there were real structural changes in the brain, we see only changes in shape. It puts the findings in a different perspective.”

The study illustrates the need to understand how space flight affects our bodies, in particular through long-term studies of the effects on the human brain, he said.

The study, funded by the European Space Agency and Roscomos, will form the basis for future studies of the full spectrum of brain changes during space travel.  Pictured is NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson.  She did not participate in the study

The study, funded by the European Space Agency and Roscomos, will form the basis for future studies of the full spectrum of brain changes during space travel. Pictured is NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. She did not participate in the study

Currently, there are countermeasures against muscle and bone loss, such as exercising for at least two hours a day. Future research may provide evidence that countermeasures are necessary for the brain.

“These findings give us additional pieces of the whole puzzle. Because this research is so groundbreaking, we don’t yet know what the whole puzzle will look like.

“These results contribute to our overall understanding of what goes on in the brains of space travelers.

“It is very important to support this line of research by studying spaceflight-induced brain changes from different perspectives and using different methods,” said Dr. Wuyts.

The results were published in Frontiers in Neural Circuits.

Traveling to Mars could speed up the aging process, scientists fear, as they begin research into the phenomenon, testing the first all-civilian crew to fly to the International Space Station.

People who have made the 40 millionth trip to Mars may be aging faster than those left on Earth, according to scientists who are looking for a way to stop this.

Experts from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, will study the first all-civilian crew to visit the International Space Station next month, before and after their flight.

They are looking for early signs of aging, a process in which a cell ages and stops dividing but does not die, accumulating in tissues throughout the body.

While a 10-day crew walk to the International Space Station won’t pose a major aging threat, it’s hoped that finding early signs could help with longer trips.

Axiom Mission 1 will send former NASA astronaut and Axiom VP Michael Lopez-Alegria into space as commander along with three others.

These are American entrepreneur and non-profit activist investor Larry Connor as a pilot, as well as Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pati, and influential investor and philanthropist Eitan Stibbe from Israel.

The Mayo Clinic team will take blood and urine samples from four members of the civilian team and look for signs of aging.

The goal is to find out if conventional space travel is linked to cell aging, and if so, this will require further intervention before anyone goes to Mars.

The ISS sits in the Van Allen Belt, a protective magnetic bubble that surrounds Earth that reduces the effects of solar radiation.

This means that travelers to the ISS must be protected from the worst effects of space travel, unlike a crew going to Mars.

“This flight will give us an idea of ​​whether conventional spaceflight, even within the Van Allen belt, is associated with cell aging,” Dr. Kirkland said.

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