Scientists from the University of Antwerp and the University of Liège have conducted a study on the impact of weightlessness on the brain. The study has revealed that the brain changes and adapts to weightlessness, essential for astronauts staying in space for extended periods. The results have also shown that some brain activity changes remain even after the astronaut returns to Earth.
Brain Function in Weightlessness
Adapting to weightlessness is a significant challenge for astronauts, as their bodies and brains are accustomed to living in a gravity-driven environment. The lack of gravity in space leads to various physiological changes in the human body, including muscle atrophy, bone density loss, and fluid shift from the legs to the upper body. The brain also has to work differently in a weightless environment, as it no longer has gravity to help orient the body and coordinate movements. This can result in disorientation, spatial confusion, and even motion sickness. The BRAIN-DTI project is focused on understanding how the brain adapts to these changes and how it can be trained to function optimally in space, which is essential for planning long-duration missions and ensuring the well-being of astronauts.
MRI Scans of Astronauts’ Brains
The research involved taking magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of 14 astronauts before their mission and several times after their mission. The MRI scans were collected using a resting-state functional MRI technique, which enabled the researchers to investigate the brain’s default state and determine whether this changes after long-duration spaceflight.
Changes in Brain Connectivity
The researchers collaborated with the University of Liège to analyse the brain’s activity at rest. They found that functional connectivity, which is a marker of how activity in some brain areas is correlated with the activity in others, changes in specific regions after spaceflight. The altered connectivity patterns were observed in regions that support integrating different types of information, rather than dealing with only one type each time, such as visual, auditory, or movement information. These findings suggest that extended periods in space may affect the brain’s ability to process and integrate sensory information, which could have important implications for the safety and well-being of astronauts during long-duration space missions.
Changes in Brain Communication
The finding that some changes in brain communication patterns remained even after the astronaut’s return to Earth is significant. It suggests that the brain has undergone long-term adaptation to the weightlessness environment, and the learning effect may have occurred as the astronaut adjusted to the new surroundings. This finding may have implications for future space travel, as it suggests that longer missions may require more extensive preparation and training to ensure that astronauts can adapt to the new environment and perform tasks effectively. It also raises questions about the potential long-term effects of space travel on the brain and whether these changes could impact an astronaut’s health or cognitive abilities in the long run. Further research is needed to fully understand the implications of these findings and their potential impact on future space missions.
Implications for Future Space Travel
As space agencies and private companies plan for longer and more ambitious missions to space, understanding the impact of weightlessness on the brain is becoming increasingly important. This research provides valuable insights into how the brain adapts to prolonged periods in space and how these changes can persist even after returning to Earth. By mapping the changes in brain function using neuroimaging techniques, future astronauts can be better prepared for space travel challenges and potentially even monitor their brain characteristics to ensure their well-being during and after missions.
The researchers are excited about the results but acknowledge that this is only the first step in understanding how the brain changes and adapts to weightlessness or other forms of travel, such as island hopping in the Philippines. The researchers’ findings have opened up new avenues for further research into the effects of weightlessness on the brain. Future studies could involve larger sample sizes and more prolonged space missions, which could help researchers understand long-term space travel’s impact on the brain. Further research is required to investigate the exact behavioural consequences of these brain communication changes, whether longer time spent in outer space might influence these observations, and whether brain characteristics may help select future astronauts or monitor them during and after space travel.
Jillings, S., Pechenkova, E., Tomilovskaya, E., Rukavishnikov, I., Jeurissen, B., Van Ombergen, A., … & Wuyts, F. L. (2023). Prolonged microgravity induces reversible and persistent changes on human cerebral connectivity. Communications Biology, 6(1), 46. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-022-04382-w