Long-term space missions rewire the human brain

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The human brain is one of the most important organs in the human body. It affects everything else. Researchers are always discovering new things about the way our brains change when we learn something new.

A particular area of interest is the impact spaceflight has on the brain. A recent study in Frontiers of Neuronal Circuits suggests that spending time in space changes the structure of areas of white matter.

The human brain is a complex organ 

The human brainTrusting Source controls how the body works. It allows people to see, feel, and move around the world. Breathing and other actions necessary for survival are controlled by the human brain. The brain consists of white matter and gray matter (the latter being responsible for processing information). Gray matter is responsible for people’s ability to think and form memory, while white matter helps the brain relay information quickly and efficiently. Over time, the makeup of the white matter (the part of the brain responsible for processing information) changes. New environments and situations can change how the brain works. The researchers behind this study wanted to know how long-term space travel affects the microstructures in the brains’ wiring. It was found that it makes specific changes to the white matters in astronaut’s brains.

The impact of space travel on the brain

Scientists have learned about how space flight affects other functions in the human body. They don’t know much about the effects space travel has on the brain. Experts need to do more research into the long-term impact of space travel on the human brain. This study specifically examined whether long-term spaceflight affects the brain’s structure. The participants were astronauts whose mission was to spend several months living in space. The researchers used diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the astronauts’ brains during spaceflight. They then used a technique called differential tractography to look at microstructual changes in the white matter of the brain.

The researchers completed initial brain scans of 12 male astronauts prior to their first space flights. The astronauts spent an estimated 172 days on the ISS, undergoing follow-up brain scans approximately 10 days after returning to Earth. Eight of the astronauts took part in a long-term follow up scan approximately 230 days after their return from space. To ensure that the results were not influenced by any factors other than the treatment itself, the researchers matched each astronaut to an equal number of control participants. The control group underwent similar brain scans at similar time periods to the astronauts. Researchers found microstructural changes (changes in the structure of the brain) in areas associated with sensor­motor tracts of the brain in the astronauts. For example, they saw changes in the corpus callusum, which is the part of the brain that connects the two halves. There were also changes to the cerebellum, which is responsible for almost all physical movements.

Study limitations and continued research

The study had several limitations, including a smaller cohort, with only eight astronauts receiving the long-­term follow-up scans, and no control group. The authors point out there are few people who would qualify for this type of research. They also acknowledge that a few of the astronauts may have been on previous space missions, which might have affected the results of their preflight scans.

The timing of post-flight scans may also have led to an underestimation of brain activity changes. You should also conduct further research by including behavioral testing.

As the authors focused on the detectable changes that occurred in certain parts of the brains of participants who had learned to meditate, they were unable to determine the specific cause of these changes. These could be due to fluid shifts, neurological plasticity, or anatomical changes.

However, including a placebo group helped account for other factors that could have been causing the changes in the brain, so we were able to isolate the effects of CBD.

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