NASA Study Finds Prolonged Exposure to Zero Gravity During Spaceflight Alters Astronauts' Brain Structure
Orange County, CA - December 15th 2017 - It has been 55 years since the first American astronaut successfully orbited the earth. Since that historic mission, scientific medicine has attempted to explain the effects of microgravity on the human body; specifically, on the brain. Donna Roberts, M.D., a MUSC (Medical University of South Carolina) neuroradiologist, recognized the need for further research in this field. She published her findings in the November 2nd edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
“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 Roberts. During spaceflight, astronauts have described feeling a variety of internal pains due to zero gravity exposure. Altered vision and increased cranial pressure are common complaints, especially in low-earth orbit aboard the International Space Station or further in the outskirts of space, such as an exploration trip to Mars.
NASA coined these pains as ‘visual impairment intracranial pressure syndrome,’ or VIIP syndrome for short. Studies have shown VIIP is related to the redistribution of bodily fluid toward the head while exposed to long-term microgravity- however, the exact cause is unknown. Due to the increased level of interest in space exploration, finding the cause of VIIP has become NASA’s top priority. Having worked with NASA since the 1990’s, Dr. Roberts was well aware of the lack of data surrounding the human brain’s adaption to zero-gravity. To remedy this deficit, Dr. Roberts proposed NASA begin using MRI technology to examine the anatomy of the brain following spaceflight.
For her study, Dr. Roberts examined the muscular responses of participants’ brains that were restricted to bedrest for 90 days. By tilting their heads downward tilt to mimic the effects of microgravity, Roberts planned to study the motor cortex prior, during, and after long-term bed rest. Upon evaluation of the scans, she discovered “crowding” at the vertex, or top, of the brain. The crowding was shown to be worse for participants on longer periods of bed rest. Results further confirmed shifting in the brain and the reduction of space between the brain itself and the skull’s inner table.
Dr. Roberts then compared these results against brains that had been exposed to spaceflight. Studying18 astronauts with short space exposure and 16 astronauts with space exposure of 3 months or longer, the second study confirmed that significant changes in brain structure occur during prolonged space flight. More importantly, -the frontal and parietal lobes responsible for controlling body movements and higher executive function were the most affected. To further understand the results of the study, Roberts and her team plan to compare post flight brain images of the astronauts to determine if the changes are permanent or are reversed following their return back on Earth. With NASA’s next Mars mission expected to launch in 2033, the urgency for researchers to collect more data about space travel’s effects on astronauts is essential to create the safest environment possible.
Study co-author and Department of Radiology and Radiological Science colleague Michael Antonucci, M.D., said, “We have known for years that microgravity affects the body in numerous ways. However, this study represents the most comprehensive assessment of the impact of prolonged space travel on the brain. The changes we have seen may explain unusual symptoms experienced by returning space station astronauts and help identify key issues in the planning of longer-duration space exploration, including missions to Mars." With future studies planned in partnership with NASA, Dr. Roberts hopes to establish MUSC as the go-to institution for future studies in clinical neuroimaging related to space exploration.
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