Astronauts show signs of ‘significant’ brain restructuring

(ORDO NEWS) — There is still much to be explored and learned about the effects of space travel on the body – and these effects appear to include some neuronal rewiring going on in the brain.

Researchers studying the brains of 12 astronauts found what they describe as “significant microstructural changes” in white matter, which controls communication within the brain and between the rest of the body and back.

The data were obtained using diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI) taken immediately before and immediately after the participants’ stay in space, which lasted an average of 172 days.

A further scan was taken seven months later, and although some of the changes were reversed, some of them were still visible.

In particular, the team found changes in the neural pathways associated with sensory and motor functions, and suggested that this may have something to do with the astronauts’ adaptation to life in microgravity.

This is the first time that a brain imaging technique known as fiber tractography has been used in connection with the aftermath of spaceflight. This technique creates a 3D image of neural pathways, revealing the wiring diagram of the brain.

Although changes have been observed in the brains of space travelers before, fiber tractography in this study was able to better understand the actual connections between neurons and how they shift.

Initially, the researchers thought they were seeing changes in the corpus callosum, the central artery that connects both hemispheres of the brain, but upon closer examination, they saw an expansion of the brain’s ventricles, a communicating network of fluid-filled chambers.

Changes in the wiring of the brain are certainly not unusual—this plasticity allows us to learn new skills, create new memories, and more. At the moment, it is not clear exactly what the consequences of this might be.

What is certain is that our bodies are really trying to adapt to the harsh conditions of space. Previous research has shown signs of increased disease risk and potential ways to damage the brain. It also turns out that being in space affects men and women differently.

These are the early days to study this particular brain adaptation using this particular scanning technique, but the more we learn about human bodies and weightlessness, the better we can prepare for the journey to other worlds.

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