Scientists from the University of Antwerp and the University of Liège discovered how the human brain changes and adapts to weightlessness, after being in space for 6 months. Some of the changes turned out to be permanent – even after 8 months back on Earth. Raphaël Liégeois, who will soon be the third Belgian in space, recognizes the importance of research, “to prepare the new generation of astronauts for longer missions.”
A child learning not to drop a glass on the floor, or a tennis player predicting the course of a ball in order to hit it accurately, are examples of how the brain incorporates the physical laws of gravity to function optimally on Earth. Astronauts who go to space live in a weightless environment, where the brain’s rules of gravity no longer apply. A new study of brain function in cosmonauts has shown how the organization of the brain changes after a six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS), showing the adaptation needed to survive weightlessness.
The University of Antwerp is leading this BRAIN-DTI scientific project through the European Space Agency. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data was taken from 14 astronauts’ brains before and several times after their mission in space. Using a special MRI technique, the researchers collected the brain data of the astronauts in a resting state, so they were not engaged in a specific task. This functional resting MRI technique allowed the researchers to investigate the default state of the brain and determine whether or not this changes after a long space flight.
In collaboration with the University of Liège, recent analyzes of brain activity at rest have shown how functional connectivity, a sign of how activity in certain brain areas correlates with activity in other areas, changes in specific regions .
“We found that connectivity was altered after spaceflight in regions that support the integration of different types of information, rather than dealing with one type at a time, such as visual, auditory or movement information,” say Steven Jillings and Floris Wuyts ( University of Antwerp)” Moreover, we found that some of these altered communication patterns were maintained during 8 months after being back on Earth. At the same time, some brain changes returned to the level of how the fields were functioning before the space mission.”
Both scenarios of change are plausible: sustained changes in brain communication may reflect a learning effect, while transient changes may reflect a more acute adaptation to changing levels of gravity.
“This data set is as special as its participants themselves. Back in 2016, we were historically the first to show how spaceflight can affect the brain function of a single cosmonaut. Several years later we are now in a unique position to investigate the brains of astronauts more. , time and time again, therefore, we are making more confidence in the capacity of the human brain,” says Dr. Athena Demertzi (GIGA Institute, University of Liège), co- the supervisor of this work.
A new generation of astronauts
“Understanding the physiological and behavioral changes induced by weightlessness is crucial to planning human space exploration. Therefore, mapping changes in brain function using neuroimaging techniques as done in this work is an important step to the generation new to prepare astronauts for longer missions,” said Raphaël Liégeois, Doctor of Engineering Science (ULiège) with a Dissertation in the field of Neuroscience, future ESA astronaut.
The researchers are excited by the results, although they know that it is only the first step in continuing our understanding of changes in brain communication after space travel. For example, we still need to investigate the exact behavioral consequence of these changes in brain communication, we need to understand whether spending more time in outer space might affect these observations, and could brain characteristics be helpful in selecting or monitoring future astronauts. during and after space travel.