29Nov2015

Space Missions Have Major Effects On Astronauts’ Brains

IN SPACE - OCTOBER 7: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst takes a 'selfie' during his spacewalk, whilst aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on October 7, 2014 in Space. Gerst returned to earth on November 10, 2014 after spending six months on the International Space Station completing an extensive scientific programme, known as the 'Blue Dot' mission (after astronomer Carl Sagan's description of Earth, as seen on a photograph taken by the Voyager probe from six billion kilometres away). (Photo by Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images)

German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst takes a ‘selfie’ during his spacewalk, whilst aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on October 7, 2014 in Space. Gerst returned to earth on November 10, 2014 after spending six months on the International Space Station completing an extensive scientific programme, known as the ‘Blue Dot’ mission (after astronomer Carl Sagan)

NASA has announced that it plans to hire new astronauts for its Mars and Space Station missions. But before you fill out your application, bear in mind that space travel has serious downsides, especially for health. 

Being stuck in a tiny, microgravity spacecraft for months (or in Scott Kelly’s case, a full year) can seriously mess with an astronaut’s body and brain.  Scientists have found that the physiological stresses of space travel can lead to significant brain changes. While more research is needed to fully determine how the brain adapts to a microgravity situation, two ongoing studies are shedding light on the neurological challenges of space travel.

A recent NASA study used MRI and functional MRI to investigate the brains of astronauts before and after spending six months on the International Space Station. The scientists also gave the astronauts certain motor tasks to complete while aboard the station.

So far, they’ve found that a microgravity environment can lead to changes in brain structure and take a serious toll on astronauts’ ability to think. The astronauts have had a more difficult time completing mental tasks and with physical coordination during and after spending time aboard the ISS.

Another study — funded by the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos — found that the brain’s cortex reorganizes itself to adapt to the challenges of a long-duration spaceflight. The preliminary findings, published in the journal Brain Structure and Function in May, are part of a research project that will continue through 2018.

Study co-author Angelique Van Ombergen, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of Antwerp, said space is a very challenging environment for humans, so spaceflight can impact physiological systems in the body.

<span class='image-component__caption' itemprop="caption">Brain scans from the NASA study show changes in brain volume that occur during long-duration head-tilted bed rest, which are similar to the changes seen after spaceflight.</span>

Brain scans from the NASA study show changes in brain volume that occur during long-duration head-tilted bed rest, which are similar to the changes seen after spaceflight.

“Factors that can have an impact consist of, but are not limited to, weightlessness, cosmic radiation, isolation, confinement and disturbed day-night rhythm,” Van Ombergen told The Huffington Post. “As one can imagine, all these factors can have an impact on the human brain, as they are new, challenging and stressful.”

Researchers placed 16 astronauts in an MRI scanner before and after their space missions, examining changes in the brain’s connectivity and neural networks. While the research continues, the evidence so far suggests that some areas of the brain can be altered in structure and function after a long space mission. The findings are based on how the body may receive conflicting signals while in space.

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