It is a well-established fact that space travel can take its toll on the human body. Think about what happens to astronauts when they return from a long space tour – they need days, if not weeks, just to be able to adjust to Earth’s gravity. A recent study from the University of Michigan revealed that learning how to walk again is not the only side effect of spaceflight.
A team of scientists from the University of Michigan led by Dr. Rachel Seidler, a professor of psychology and kinesiology, declared that the brain undergoes major structural changes when exposed to the void of space.
By studying the brain scans of astronauts who traveled to the International Space Station, Seidler and her team discovered that the human brain found some peculiar way to adapt to the new environmental conditions. More specifically, the team uncovered that the gray matter density increases and decreases during spaceflight.
Furthermore, it would seem that the phenomenon is even more visible in the brain of astronauts who spent more time in space. Seidler performed MRI scans on the brains of 14 astronauts who spent two weeks traveling through space. The results were then compared to another batch of 14 MRI scans performed on the brains of astronauts who spent at least six months aboard the International Space Station.
The conclusion was consistent in every case – the MRI scans of the astronauts who spend less time in space showed subtle sign of gray matter shifting, while the MRI scans of the astronauts who returned from their International Space Station tour showed more pronounced signs.
Seidler and her team believe that this brain compression is the result of microgravity. As we know, gravity makes the cerebrospinal fluid to reach the lower parts of our bodies. However, in the absence of an Earth-like gravity, the cerebrospinal fluid is forced to go up into the brain, forcing the organ to change its shape.
In certain areas of the brain, the gray matter shifting is much more visible. For example, the scientists found evidence of increased shifting in the areas associated with leg movement than in other areas, which is to be expected considering the fact that astronauts spend a great deal of time floating through space.
So, why is discovery considered significant? First of all, Seidler’s team managed to provide a clearer picture of what will happen during the upcoming Mars mission. Second, all data uncovered during the study will help doctors diagnose and treat similar conditions.