LIFE SCIENCE

Space travel affects the way the brain works


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Scientists at the Universities of Antwerp and Liège in Belgium have discovered how the human brain changes and adapts to weightlessness after 6 months in space. Some of these changes proved to be lasting – even eight months after returning to Earth. A related paper was recently published in Communication Biology.

Rapha Liégeois, a Belgian who is about to become the third in space, believes the study is important to “prepare for long-term missions for a new generation of astronauts.”

A child learning not to drop a cup on the floor, or a tennis player predicting the path of an incoming ball and hitting it accurately, are examples of brains combined with the laws of gravity to optimize normal functioning on Earth. Astronauts traveling to space are in weightlessness, and the brain’s rules about gravity no longer apply.

With the assistance of ESA, the University of Antwerp leads a scientific project called “BRAIN-DTI”. The magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data used in the study was collected before and after 14 astronauts flew a six-month space mission to the International Space Station.

Using a special MRI technique, the researchers collected brain data from astronauts at rest without requiring them to perform specific tasks. This resting functional MRI technique allows researchers to study the brain’s “default” state and find out whether that state changes after a long period of spaceflight.

In collaboration with the University of Liège, researchers analyzed activity in the brain’s resting state, revealing how functional connectivity changes in specific regions. Functional connectivity is a sign of how activity in some areas of the brain relates to activity in other areas.

Corresponding author Steven Jillings, of the University of Antwerp, said: “We found that after spaceflight, the functional connectivity of brain regions that support the integration of different types of information changes, rather than processing only one type of information at a time, such as visual, auditory or motor information. ”

“During the 8 months of returning to Earth, some of these changed modes of connectivity were retained. At the same time, some changes in the brain returned to pre-mission functional levels. One of the authors of the paper, Floris Wuyts of the University of Antwerp, said.

Both changes are reasonable. Persistent changes in brain connectivity may indicate a learning effect, while transient changes may indicate a more drastic adaptation to changes in gravity.

“Understanding the physiological and behavioral changes triggered by weightlessness is key to planning human space exploration. Using neuroimaging to map changes in brain function is an important step in preparing a new generation of astronauts for long-term missions. Liégeois said. (Source: Wang Fang, China Science News)

Related paper information:https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-022-04382-w



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