A recently published study by a group of scientists from the University of Liege and the University of Antwerp has revealed that the brain adapts to the feeling of weightlessness after being in space for six months.
With a few effects persisting over eight months after returning to Earth, alterations from space exist in space.
Acknowledging the significance of the ‘BRAIN-DTI Scientific Project’ Raphael Liegeois, the Belgian astronaut, described it as vital “to prepare the new generation of astronauts for longer missions.”
Numerous examples demonstrate how the human brain integrates with the laws of gravity to function optimally on Earth; for instance, a goalkeeper on a football field predicts the course of the incoming ball to save the goal.
Recent findings highlight the intricacies of the human brain in a weightless environment where the laws of gravity are no longer applicable.
The study on brain function in cosmonauts has revealed how the brain’s organization is changed after a six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS), demonstrating the adaptation required to live in weightlessness.
How does it affect the human brain?
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of 14 astronauts before and after their space missions.
Data was collected in a resting condition, with the idea not to have them engage in any specific task, further enabling us to investigate the brain’s default state and whether any of those changes were apparent after long-duration spaceflight.
Through these analyses, researchers concluded that ‘functional connectivity’, a marker of how activity in some brain areas is correlated with activity in others, changes after prolonged spaceflight.
Steven Jillings and Floris Wuyts, researchers at the University of Antwerp, have explained: “We found that connectivity was altered after spaceflights in regions that support the integration of different types of information, rather than dealing with only one type each time, such as visual, auditory, or movement information.”
“Moreover, we found that some of these altered communication patterns were retained throughout eight months of being back on Earth. At the same time, some brain changes returned to the level of how the areas were functioning before the space mission.”
Both of the scenarios of changes are plausible: the long-term retained changes in brain communication may suggest a learning effect.
While the brain changes returned to normal levels on return, they were interpreted as transient changes that may indicate more acute adaptation to the change in gravity level.
However, this is not the first study to show that spaceflight has a plausible impact on the human brain. Different investigations have demonstrated that the human brain undergoes various changes during spaceflight, likely to be accentuated in deep space.
Furthermore, Dr. Athena Demertzi, the co-supervisor of this work, tracing the history of the attempts and calling the dataset ‘special’ mentioned: “Back in 2016, we were historically the first to show how spaceflight may affect brain function on a single cosmonaut. Some years later, we are now in a unique position to investigate the brains of more astronauts several times. Therefore, we are deciphering the potential of the human brain all the more in confidence.”
Even though researchers are very excited about the results, they are aware that these are the first of several findings they will pursue to understand better how brain communication changes after space travel.
However, the quest to analyze the exact behavioral consequences that correlate with these functional connectivity changes is yet to be deciphered.
Previous researches to decode a fruitful connection between brain and Space:
Though it is widely believed that being in space alters and potentially damages the human brain, numerous studies have supported this notion.
A year ago, research by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) scientists revealed that long-duration spaceflights could alter fluid-filled spaces along with veins and arteries in the brain.
The comparative research used MRI images of 15 astronauts, nine of whom were novices—those with no previous spaceflight experience and were completing their first mission in space.
Examining where the change strikes:
The perivascular spaces (PVS) in the human brain are where the cerebrospinal fluid flows. The researchers found that the total PVS volume of novice astronauts increased after their first mission, whereas this did not appear in the case of experienced astronauts.
In addition, their total PVS volume has decreased. According to Juan Piantino, senior author and assistant professor of pediatrics (neurology) at OHSU School, their brains may have reached homeostasis after the previous spaceflight, i.e., their brains have become more accustomed to microgravity.
“These findings not only help to understand fundamental changes that happen during spaceflight but also for people on the Earth who suffer from diseases that affect the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid,” he added.
Have astronauts faced any problems with the functioning of their brain?
A deep space mission and progress in neurology have revealed that microgravity can cause disorientation, perceptual illusions, balance disorders, and motion sickness in humans.
Researchers like Laurence Harris at York University believe that a certain level of gravity is necessary to give us a sense of orientation- a definite sense of up and down.
NASA-supported research has found that microgravity or weightlessness impacts an individual’s cognitive capacity. However, the results highlighted a slight but reliable cognitive speed deceleration in tasks that involve sensory and motor skills.
In addition, the study noted that participants struggled with reading emotions.
In the investigation, the participants had to lay their backs at an inclination of a 6-degree angle, i.e., with their heads lower than the rest of their bodies, for around two months without changing their position.
It is vital, however, to gain more insight into how weightlessness affects cognitive performance, behavior, and emotional health and to develop appropriate psychological and medical support.
The Brain-DTI science project, however, needs to examine whether longer time spent in space might influence these results. Whether brain characteristics can be used to select future astronauts or monitor them prior to and after their journey into space.