Recent studies of "space brain"

Studies show that cosmic radiation can cause lasting cognitive defects and brain impairments. What is going on?

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Studies show that cosmic radiation can cause lasting cognitive defects and brain impairments. Astonauts in space experience a plethora of behavioral changes that may be due to changes in the brain, including disorientation, loss of sleep and misaligned circadiam rhythm, and deficits in multitasking, sensory integration, spatial processing, and attention. Are we close to understanding the cause of "space brain"?

Earlier this year, scientists published a study that compared brain images of astronauts before and after long-term missions in space. They observed altered brain function after long-duration spaceflight. Specifically, the researchers found difference in connectivity between the motor cortex and cerebellum. The disorientation that astronauts typically experience after returning to normal gravity might result from these changes in brain function. These changes in functional connectivity were still present 9 days after returning to Earth.

Although the International Space Station is docked within the Earth’s magnetosphere and is protected from cosmic radiation, astronauts aboard the space station receive over 10-times the radiation that Earth-dwelling humans receive. The brain is particularly vulnerable to lasting effects of radiation. One study in mice found that the combination of low-gravity and radiation causes leakage of the blood brain barrier, a network of blood vessels and supporting cells that regulates the exchange of substances between the blood and the brain. A recent study found effects of radiation on the performance of specific behavior tasks in rodents, even after 24 weeks following the exposure. When the researchers looked at the changes in the neurons of brain regions associated with these tasks, they found reductions in dendritic complexity and spine density. Further research is necessary to determine whether the leaky blood brain barrier leads to these long-term morphological changes.

A team of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania will be investigating the effects of space flight by comparing identical twins. Scott Kelly, who spent a year aboard the International Space Station, will square off with his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. The team will focus on tests to compare attention, spatial orientation, emotion recognition, and risk decision making. Their results will provide critical information about the effects of space on the human brain.

Marie-Elizabeth Barabas

Managing Editor, Springer Nature

I'm an interdisciplinary neuroscientist with a research background in peripheral sensory/pain research, retinal development, and stem cell research. As the Managing Editor of npj Microgravity, my role is to assist the editorial process, implement editorial policies, and promote the journal, its articles, and the community. I also attend conferences and meetings to develop a relationship with our readers, authors, and editors. If you see me at a conference, feel free to introduce yourself.