Astronauts’ brains float a little higher in their skulls

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, Expedition 41 flight engineer, uses a digital still camera to expose a photo of his helmet visor during a session of extravehicular activity (EVA) as work continues on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASAJohnson/Flickr)

Brain scans of astronauts before and after spaceflight show changes to their white matter in areas that control movement and process sensory information, according to a new small study.

The deterioration was the same type you’d expect to see with aging, but happened over a much shorter period of time. The findings could help explain why some astronauts have balance and coordination problems after returning to Earth, says study coauthor Rachael Seidler, a professor at the University of Flordia’s College of Health and Human Performance.

However, changes in one region—the cerebellum—were more pronounced for those whose missions were shorter, suggesting that our brains may be able to adapt given enough time.

Space symptoms

The study in JAMA Neurology evaluated scans of 15 NASA astronauts. The scans also show the fluid around the brain pooling at the base of the cerebrum after spaceflight. The astronauts’ brains were essentially floating higher in their skulls after their time in microgravity.

“We know that fluid shifts toward the head in space,” Seidler says. “When you see photos and video of astronauts, their faces often look puffy, because gravity isn’t pulling fluids down into the body.”

The same phenomenon could be drawing extra cerebrospinal fluid into their skulls, she says, which might contribute to a condition called Spaceflight Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome, which involves kinking of the optic nerve, visual changes, and flattening of the back of the eye.

“It could be slower fluid turnover, it could be pressure on the optic nerve or that the brain is sort of tugging on the optic nerve because it’s floating higher in the skull,” Seidler says.

The balance issues white-matter deterioration causes usually correct themselves after a few weeks back on Earth, but the brain changes that caused them might last longer. In future studies, Seidler and her colleagues plan to evaluate scans from six months after spaceflight to see how long the changes persist as well as what causes them and how they relate to vision changes and other post-flight health issues—key concerns for space tourism and extended space journeys such as missions to Mars.

Not just important for astronauts

There could also be implications for those of us more likely to spend extended time on the couch than in a space capsule. The reason space affects astronauts’ balance back on Earth is that arms and legs unencumbered by gravity aren’t sending much sensory input to the brain, so the way brain pathways process information changes.

“We have an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. It’s not the same as the effects on limbs in space, but if we’re laying around and not using our bodies, could the integrity of white matter pathways in the brain be affected?” she asks. “Another reason for an active lifestyle.”

NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute supported the study.

Additional researchers came from the University of Utah, University of Texas Health Science Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and KBRwyle. Seidler also worked with NASA’s Johnson Space Center on the study.

Source: University of Florida