How Astronaut Brains are Affected by Space Travel: Mission to Mars

First Posted: Oct 14, 2015 09:48 AM EDT

What happens to your brain in space? This is particularly important to figure out as NASA and other agencies gear up for a manned mission to Mars. Now, an investigation on the International Space Station (ISS) is looking at how the brain changes in space.

In previous research, scientists have found that humans have a harder time controlling physical movement and completing mental tasks in microgravity. In fact, astronauts have experienced problems with balance and perceptual illusions-for example, feeling as if they are switching back and forth between right-side-up and upside down.

In this latest study, the researchers are using both behavioral assessments and brain imaging. Astronauts complete timed obstacle courses and tests of their spatial memory, or the ability to mentally picture and manipulate a three-dimensional shape, before and after spaceflight. The spatial memory test also is performed aboard the station, along with sensory motor adaptation tests and computerized exercises requiring them to move and think simultaneously. The astronauts are tested shortly after arriving at the station, mid-way through and near the end of a six-month flight. In addition, the MRI scans are done pre-flight and post-flight.

"We are looking at the volume of different structures in the brain and whether they change in size or shape during spaceflight," said Rachael D. Seidler, principal investigator of the new study, in a news release. "One Earth, your vestibular-or balance-system tells you how your head moves relative to gravity, but in space, the gravity reference is gone. That causes these perceptual illusions, as well as difficult coordinating movement of the eyes and head."

Identifying the physical mechanisms behind changes in behavior could help researchers figure out how humans can adapt to space and help astronauts compensate for these changes. This, in turn, could help with long-term spaceflight.

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