A new study have discovered that space travel can irreversibly change the shape of the brain. Funded by NASA, the study detailed the impact of spaceflight on the physical structure of the brain by examining astronauts’ brains. The researchers found noticeable changes in gray matter of these astronauts.
Researchers examined structural MRIs in 12 astronauts who spent a couple of weeks as shuttle crew members, and 14 ISS astronauts who spent six months on the station. MRIs taken before and after spaceflight revealed that the density and volume of gray matter fluctuated. The extent of the changes depended on the length of time spent in space.
“We found large regions of gray matter volume decreases, which could be related to redistribution of cerebrospinal fluid in space,” lead author Rachael Seidler says. He further explains that the absence of gravity may have forced the fluids up in the body, resulting in so-called puffy face in space travel. This phenomenon is what causes the shift of brain position or compression, the International Business Times reports.
Gray matter is responsible for sensory perception, memory formation, decision-making and emotions. The researchers find that gray matter increased in the part of the brain that controls leg movement. This reflects changes in the brain as it learns how to move in zero gravity.
Meanwhile, gray matter volume decreased in other in areas of the brain due to redistribution of the CSF. The study says that there is no evidence of brain cell loss or gain found during examination. It is also not clear what repercussions these changes have in the long term, and whether the brain can compensate for the structural changes back on earth, the Futurity reports.
Researchers say the findings could have significant application in medicine. They could be used to find treatment for health conditions that affect brain function. Scientists conclude that more carefully controlled prospective studies are needed to examine neural changes caused by space travel and their effects on behavioral performance.