How spaceflight changes the brain: Study on 15 astronauts reveals micro-gravity alters white matter and causes brain to float higher in the skull
A new study supported byhas shed worrying light on the effects of space travel on the human brain.
Brain scans of astronauts from before and after spaceflight revealed changes typically associated with long term processes such as aging, including deterioration in areas responsible for movement and the processing of sensory information.
The results, however, also suggest an astronaut’s brain may be able to adapt to these changes over time.
‘We know that fluid shifts toward the head in space,’ said Rachel Seidler, a professor with the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida.
‘When you see photos and video of astronauts, their faces often look puffy, because gravity isn’t pulling fluids down into the body.’
These gravitational effects aren’t just worn on the surface – according to the new study, spaceflight directly affects the brain’s white matter in the regions that control movement and process sensory information.
And, the team found that spaceflight causes fluid around the brain to pool at the base of the cerebrum, as if the brain is ‘floating higher’ in the skull.
This could play a key role in a condition called Spaceflight Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome, which causes visual changes and flattening in the back of the eye.
‘It could be slower fluid turnover, it could be pressure on the optic nerve or that the brain is sort of tugging on the optic nerve because it’s floating higher in the skull,’ Seidler said.
But, the researchers say, the white matter problems don’t appear to be permanent.