Human Brain rewire by the long-term space missions

Human Brain rewire by the long-term space missions

In Frontiers, in Neural Circuits, a new study was published which is the first to analyse the structural connectivity changes that happen in the brain after long-duration spaceflight. The results have shown significant microstructural changes in several white matter tracts, such as the sensorimotor tracts.

Throughout our lives, our brain can change and adapt in structure and function. As human exploration of space has reached new horizons, understanding the effects of spaceflight on human brain has become crucial.

A team of international researchers, led by Dr Floris Wuyts of the University of Antwerp, through a collaborative project between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos, have been studying the brains of humans that are traveling to space.

For the first time, Wuyts and his colleagues have investigated structural changes in the brain after spaceflight at the level of deep-brain white matter tracts.

White matter is the part of the brain that is responsible for communication between gray matter and the body and also between various gray matter regions. To summarise, white matter is the channel of communication of the brain, whereas, gray matter is the part where information processing is done. To study brain structure and function after spaceflight, a brain imaging technique is used by the researchers called fiber Tractography.

Wuyts explained that Fiber Tractography gives a sort of wiring scheme of the brain. Their study is the first to use this specific method to detect changes in brain structure after spaceflight.

Wuyts and his team acquired diffusion MRI scans of 12 male cosmonauts before and after their spaceflights.

Also they collected eight follow-up scans, which was seven months after spaceflight. The researchers found proof of the concept of the learned brain.

The first author Andrei Doroshin, of Drexel University, said that they found changes in the neural connections between several motor areas of the brain.

He added that motor areas are brain centres where commands for movements are initiated, and in weightlessness, an astronaut needs to adapt his or her movement strategies drastically as compared to Earth.

Wuyts continued that from previous studies that they know that these motor areas show signs of adaptation after spaceflight. But now, they have a first indication that it is also reflected at the level of connections between those regions.

The authors has also find an explanation for anatomical brain shifts that are being observed after spaceflight. They said that they have initially thought to detect changes in the corpus callosum, which is the central highway connecting both hemispheres of the brain.

Wuyts said that the structural changes that they have initially found in the corpus callosum are actually caused by the dilation of the ventricles that actually induce anatomical shifts of the adjacent neural tissue.

The study also shows a need for understanding how spaceflight affects our body, specifically through long-term research on the effects on the human brain. Current countermeasures exist for muscle and bone loss. Future research may provide evidences that countermeasure is necessary for the brain.

Wuyts concluded by saying that these findings give them additional pieces of the entire puzzle. Since, the research is so pioneering they don’t know how the whole puzzle will look yet.

These results also contribute to their overall understanding of what’s going on in the brains of space travellers. It is crucial to maintain the line of research which is looking for spaceflight that has induced brain changes from different perspectives and using different techniques.


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