How prolonged exposure to weightlessness affected the brains of astronauts

(ORDO NEWS) — Immersed in weightlessness for months, our bodies adapt to it in such a way that space travelers have a long list of health problems once they return to Earth.

The new work reveals the changes that happen to astronauts’ bodies between missions.

US researchers compared a series of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) images of the brains of 15 astronauts taken before their six-month stay on the International Space Station and up to six months after their return.

Using algorithms to carefully size perivascular spaces (gaps in brain tissue thought to facilitate fluid balance), the team found that time spent in orbit has a strong impact on brain function . At least for beginners.

Among the pool of veteran astronauts, the sizes of perivascular spaces on the two scans taken before the mission and on the four scans taken after it were practically the same.

“Experienced astronauts may have achieved some homeostasis,” notes neurologist Juan Piantino of the Oregon Health and Science University.

The findings may not be all that surprising given what we already know about how the brain distorts when the constant force of gravity balances out.

Previous studies of brain tissues and their fluid volumes have shown that they recover slowly after being in space, and some changes persist for a year or more.

Nowadays, astronauts rarely make more than a few flights into space in their lifetime, usually hovering there for about six months at a time. However, as the commercialization of the space industry grows, things may change.

It will be useful to know whether repeated flights exacerbate the harm, or whether the changes that occurred on the first flight temporarily adapt the astronauts to a new kind of normality.

Even in the context of expanded perivascular spaces, it is not yet entirely clear whether this change is associated with any notable health risks.

We tend to make the most of this neurological drainage system when we sleep. Fluid flow around our gray matter appears to play an important role in removing waste products that build up during our more active hours.

Without the effective functioning of these channels, damaging materials can accumulate, potentially contributing to an increased risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s too early to tell if microgravity is having any effect on the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid around our hats, let alone significantly changing the shape of the canal network.

This may not even become apparent until researchers have a large enough sample of veteran astronauts with solid careers behind them.

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