The Possible Effects of Long-duration Space Travel on the Brain

Achieving spaceflight has allowed humans to explore and understand the solar system and the rest of the universe. But spaceflight is not as glamorous as it seems; rather, it comes with a lot of risks and financial costs. On top of that, Dr. Curtis Cripe notes that staying in space for a long duration can even affect an astronaut’s brain.

The human brain is a complex organ. To put it simply, it controls how the entire body functions. Studying how the brain adapts to various environments and situations, including during spaceflight, is important. After all, there are plenty of hazards in the space environment to which astronauts are subjected. These include altered gravity fields for a prolonged time, radiation, ICE (isolated/confined/extreme) conditions, lack of healthy sustenance, and more.

Researchers have been trying to understand how long-duration spaceflight can impact the microstructures of the brain’s wiring. As Dr. Curtis Cripe explains, prolonged exposure to the space environment can change the makeup of the white matter, which is the part of the brain that helps the organ relay information and signals efficiently.

A recent study was conducted on astronauts who had extended tours of duty at the International Space Station. Their brain scans before and after the spaceflight were collected and compared to a control group that accounted for the participants’ physical attributes. For instance, individuals of the same age, gender, and handedness as the participants were chosen. The comparisons between the brain scans showed that microstructural changes in some parts linked with the brain’s sensorimotor tracts, such as the area that connects the two halves of the organ (corpus callosum), occurred. Some changes in the cerebellum were also discovered. While these changes have been documented, the potential long-term effects of long-duration spaceflights are still being studied.

Dr. Curtis Cripe is a neuroengineer with a diverse multidisciplinary background that has been developing brain-based technology and programs that can be used to provide countermeasures for neurochanges that may occur in space. Read more about him here.


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