Could space travel change the structure of our brains?

Researchers who have studied the brains of 12 cosmonauts have found what they describe as “significant microstructural changes” in the white matter that manages communications within the brain and to and from the rest of the body.

The data were obtained through diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI) scans performed shortly before and immediately after the participants’ time in space, which lasted an average of 172 days. Further scans were done seven months later, and while there was a reversal of some changes, some of them were still visible.

Specifically, the team found changes in neural traits linked to sensory and motor functions and speculate that this may have something to do with cosmonauts’ adaptation to life in microgravity.

“Considering the different physics and kinesthetics that apply to the extreme environment of space and the hypothesis that these have significant effects on the representation and control of the body by the brain, these traits are therefore suspected to reflect this altered sensorimotor function shown in the space travelers, ”the team wrote.

This is the first time that a brain imaging technique known as tractography fiber, has been used in relation to the effects of space flight. The technique constructs a 3D image of the neuronal tracts, revealing the brain’s wiring pattern.

Changes in the brain of space travelers have also been observed previously, but using the tractography In fiber this study was able to get a better look at the actual connections between neurons and how they moved.

Initially, the researchers thought they had spotted changes in the corpus callosum, the central highway connecting both hemispheres of the brain, but on closer inspection they noticed an expansion of the brain’s ventricles, a communicating network of fluid-filled chambers. which are located next to the corpus callosum.

“The structural changes we initially found in the corpus callosum are actually caused by the dilation of the ventricles that induce anatomical displacements of adjacent neural tissue,” said neuroscientist Floris Wuyts, of the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

“Where it was initially thought that there were real structural changes in the brain, we only observe changes in shape. This puts the results in a different perspective ”.

Changes in brain wiring aren’t unusual, of course – this plasticity allows us to learn new skills, create new memories, and so much more. It is currently unclear exactly what the implications of this space-related rewiring might be.

What is certain is that our bodies try to adapt to the harsh environment of space. Previous studies have shown signs of an increased risk of the disease and potential ways the brain could be damaged. It also seems that spending time in space affects men and women differently.

These are the first steps in studying this particular brain adaptation using this particular scanning technique, but the more we know about human bodies and zero gravity, the better we will be able to prepare to travel to other worlds.

“These results give us further pieces of the whole puzzle,” said Wuyts. “Since this research is so groundbreaking, we still don’t know what the whole puzzle will look like. These results contribute to our general understanding of what is happening in the brain of space travelers ”.

“It is essential to maintain this line of research, looking for brain changes induced by space flight from different perspectives and using different techniques.”