Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Charleston, SC, United States (4E) – A new study on the effects of spaceflight on NASA astronauts further confirms that space travel does have permanent effects of the brain.
Space is a hostile environment and presents many physiological and psychological challenges for NASA astronauts from the United States and other countries. One of the common challenges: NASA astronauts experience altered vision and increased pressure inside their heads during spaceflight aboard the International Space Station.
These conditions can be serious problems for astronauts, especially if these people go on lengthy spaceflights such as the upcoming missions to Mars by the 2030s.
To describe these symptoms, NASA coined the term, “Visual Impairment Intracranial Pressure” syndrome, or VIIP syndrome.
The cause of VIIP syndrome is thought to be related to the redistribution of body fluid toward the head during long-term microgravity exposure. The exact cause of VIIP is unknown, however.
NASA has made determining the cause of VIIP syndrome and how to resolve its effects a top priority.
Recognizing the need for data related to those effects, Dr. Donna Roberts, M.D., a neuroradiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, conducted a study titled “Effects of Spaceflight on Astronaut Brain Structure as Indicated on MRI.”
“Exposure to the space environment has permanent effects on humans that we simply do not understand. What astronauts experience in space must be mitigated to produce safer space travel for the public,” said Dr. Roberts.
She’s concerned about the lack of data describing the adaptation of the human brain to microgravity and proposed to NASA that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) be used to investigate the anatomy of the brain following spaceflight.
Roberts suspected subtle anatomical changes in the brains of astronauts during spaceflight might be contributing to the development of VIIP syndrome based on her earlier work.
For this new study, she examined the brains and muscular responses of participants that stayed in bed for 90 days. During this time, the participants were required to keep their heads continuously tilted in a downward position to simulate the effects of microgravity.
Using functional MRI, Roberts evaluated brain neuroplasticity, studying the brain’s motor cortex before, during and after long-term bed rest. Results confirmed neuroplasticity in the brain occurred during bed rest, which correlated with functional outcomes of the subjects.
Dr. Roberts saw something unusual as she evaluated the brain scans. She noted a “crowding” occurrence at the vertex, or top of the brain, with narroing of the gyri and sulci, the bumps and depressions in the brain that give it its folded appearance.
This crowding was worse for participants who were on longer bed rest in the study.
Roberts also saw evidence of brain shifting and a narrowing of the space between the top of the brain and the inner table of the skull. She questioned if the same thing might be happening to the astronauts during spaceflight.
In further studies, Roberts acquired brain MRI scans and related data from NASA’s Lifetime Surveillance of Astronaut Health program for two groups of astronauts: 18 astronauts who had been in space for short periods of time aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle and 16 astronauts who had been in space for longer periods of time, typically three months, aboard the International Space Station. Roberts and her team then compared the brain images of the two groups of astronauts.
Study results confirmed a narrowing of the brain’s central sulcus, a groove in the cortex near the top of the brain that separates the parietal and frontal lobes, in 94 percent of the astronauts who participated in long-duration flights and 18.8 percent of the astronauts on short-duration flights.
Video also showed an upward shift of the brain and narrowing of the CSF spaces at the top of the brain among the long-duration flight astronauts but not in the short-duration flight astronauts.
Her findings concluded that significant changes in brain structure occur during long-duration space flight.
More importantly, the parts of the brain that are most affected — the frontal and parietal lobes — control movement of the body and higher executive function. The longer an astronaut stayed in space, the worse the symptoms of VIIP syndrome would be.
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