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The human brain adapts to weightlessness in space

If you were to take a trip into space, you’d be tumbling around the rocket cabin due to the lack of gravity. However, a new study from the University of Antwerp and the University of Liège has revealed that this is not the only physiological effect of zero gravity. In fact, the human brain actually adapts to the feeling of weightlessness, with some effects persisting for more than eight months after returning to Earth. 

The “BRAIN-DTI scientific project” has received support and acknowledgment from Raphaël Liégeois, a Belgian astronaut who will soon be the third Belgian in space. The purpose of this study on the effects of weightlessness on the human brain is to prepare the new generation of astronauts for longer missions, explained Liégeois.

To better understand weightlessness of the brain, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate the brains of 14 astronauts both before and after their mission to space. Data was collected in resting conditions to ensure that there was no activity that may influence the MRI scans of each astronaut, helping the researchers to understand whether any changes were apparent after long-duration spaceflight. 

Through this study of default brain states before and after space missions, the researchers were able to conclude that “functional connectivity” changed after prolonged space flight. Functional connectivity is a marker used to assess how the activity within specific brain areas correlates with activity in other regions. In the case of this study, before and after functional connectivity states were compared. 

“We found that connectivity was altered after spaceflight in regions that support the integration of different types of information,” explained Steven Jillings and Floris Wuyts, researchers at the University of Antwerp. “Moreover, we found that some of these altered communication patterns were retained throughout 8 months of being back on Earth. However, other brain changes returned to the level of how the areas were functioning before the space mission.”

Long-term functional connectivity changes were interpreted to represent a lasting learning effect on the brain. On the other hand, brain changes that returned to normal levels upon return were interpreted as transient effects of spaceflight that indicate a more acute and short-term adaptation to changed gravity levels. 

Whilst the scientists are excited about the study findings, research into understanding brain communication changes after space travel is still in a very early stage. It will still be necessary to analyze the behavioral consequences that correlate with these functional connectivity changes, and further studies must be conducted to understand whether longer time in space correlates with more significant brain changes. This research could help organizations select and monitor future astronauts based on the way their brains react to prolonged flight. 

The research is published in the journal Communications Biology


By Calum Vaughan, Staff Writer

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