It is no longer a surprise that prolonged time in space can affect the human body in a number of ways, changes which are mainly attributed to the lack of gravity and altered vestibular inputs. A team of researchers from the University of Michigan an MRI machine to perform scans on astronauts’ brains to better understand how and what spaceflight altered during their time outside Earth’s atmosphere. The researchers believe that the results not only answer some questions that have been only recently raised in connection with space exploration but also provide clues in regard to health conditions that affect brain function.
This is believed to be the first study to examine brain structural changes during spaceflight. Per latest findings, the volume of gray matter had either increased or decreased while in space as the extent of the alteration highly depended on how much time the astronauts spent in space.
The researchers performed a dozen MRI brain scans on astronauts who spent two weeks, a most, aboard spaceships as crew members, and 14 others for those who spent up to six months on the International Space Station. According to the scientists, all of the astronauts experienced both increases, as well as decreases in gray matter levels in different areas of the brain.
University of Michigan’s Professor of kinesiology and psychology, Rachael Seidler, says that the more time the astronauts spent in zero gravity on board of the spaceships, the more pronounced gray matter alteration was. She linked the shifting gray matter levels to the redistribution of cerebrospinal fluid in zero gravity. As the Earth’s downward pulling force does not affect astronauts in space, this could result in either brain compression or shift.
“Gravity is not available to pull fluids down in the body, resulting in so-called puffy face in space”, Professor Rachael Seidler said.
However, at this point, it is still too early for the researchers to pinpoint the exact nature of the changes in astronauts’ gray matter. Nevertheless, the latest findings could lead to new ways of viewing certain health conditions, say the scientists. Together with these changes could come new connections between neurons, they believe, However, Professor Seidler says that the long-term study is still in its infancy and more research is yet to be done.
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