Space Missions Have Major Effects On Astronauts’ Brains

NASA announced last week that it plans to hire new astronauts for its Mars and International Space Station missions. But before you fill out your application, bear in mind that space travel has some serious downsides, especially when it comes to your health.

Being stuck in a tiny, microgravity spacecraft for months (or in Scott Kelly’s case, a full year) can seriously mess with an astronaut’s body and brain.

Scientists have found that the physiological stresses of space travel can lead to significant brain changes. While more research is needed to fully determine how the brain adapts to a microgravity situation, two ongoing studies are shedding light on the neurological challenges of space travel.

A recent NASA study used MRI and functional MRI to investigate the brains of astronauts before and after spending six months on the International Space Station. The scientists also gave the astronauts certain motor tasks to complete while aboard the station.

So far, they’ve found that a microgravity environment can lead to changes in brain structure and take a serious toll on astronauts’ ability to think. The astronauts have had a more difficult time completing mental tasks and with physical coordination during and after spending time aboard the ISS.

Another study — funded by the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos — found that the brain’s cortex reorganizes itself to adapt to the challenges of a long-duration spaceflight. The preliminary findings, published in the journal Brain Structure and Function in May, are part of a research project that will continue through 2018.

Study co-author Angelique Van Ombergen, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of Antwerp, said space is a very challenging environment for humans, so spaceflight can impact physiological systems in the body.

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