Astronaut Brain Structure and Function Altered over Long Duration Space Mission

Astronaut Brain Structure and Function Altered over Long Duration Space Mission

The researchers made a comparison between pre and post-flight brain MRI scans of the 12 astronauts who underwent long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station, thanks to the NASA Lifetime Surveillance of Astronaut Health (LSAH) program

Fremont, CA: In a recent study on NASA astronauts, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina tried to find out how the human brain adapts to the microgravity environment of space. With the help of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of NASA astronauts, the researchers found that widespread structural changes in the brain, especially after long-duration space flight. "This study looks at cognitive changes in the brains of astronauts," Donna Roberts, a neuroradiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina said. "Not a lot is known about cognitive impairment in humans during spaceflight."

 Previous studies have found that long-duration space flight missions can damage the human brain in many different ways, like, an upward shift of the brain, crowding of tissue at the top of the brain and enlargement of the ventricular system. The recent study, however, is the first to identify structural brain changes. This, in turn, results in changes in the astronauts' motor skills and cognitive performance after space flight. The researchers made a comparison between pre and post-flight brain MRI scans of the 12 astronauts who underwent long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station, thanks to the NASA Lifetime Surveillance of Astronaut Health (LSAH) program.

The 12 astronauts also participated in a few other tests such as, pre and post space flight cognitive test, which assess working memory, computational skills, attention, visual tracking, and spatial processing. The results from these tests were then compared with the astronauts' MRI scans to establish a relationship between structural brain changes and cognitive performance. "Although this study evaluates a small subset of astronauts, it's significantly larger than any previously published study of its kind involving astronauts or Russian cosmonauts," Roberts said.

Along with the cognitive testing, eight of the long-duration space flight astronauts participated in a functional task test. This test assesses an astronaut's physical coordination, strength, and performance of mission-critical activities during spaceflight. Researchers used the findings from this study to find correlations between changes in brain structure, cognitive performance, and motor function, while also taking into account the astronauts' age at the time of launch and flight duration, to determine how the human brain adapts to microgravity. "The long-term effects of these brain changes are unknown at this time because of the need for more detailed brain imaging of our astronauts," Roberts said. "With that data, we can begin to answer some important questions, does the brain return to its preflight baseline? Are there any long-term consequences of the brain's structural and performance changes in microgravity?"

From the study, it was found that widespread structural changes occurred in the brain after long-duration space flight. However, advanced neuroimaging techniques and long-term imaging follow-ups are required to understand better these changes and their effects on long-duration space missions such as the missions planned for Moon, Mars, and beyond. 

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