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Life in orbit induces brain changes in cosmonauts, says top scientist

During a space mission, the volume of gray matter in humans decreases while the volumes of brain’s white matter and cerebrospinal fluid increase, as follows from the study

MOSCOW, September 15. /TASS/. A cosmonaut’s brain at the International Space Station changes in order to adapt a human being to life in space, head of the Department of Sensory-Motor Physiology and Countermeasures of the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences Yelena Tomilovskaya told TASS on Tuesday.

Since 2013, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been jointly studying brain changes among cosmonauts in space. The IBMP is the leading institution in the experiment representing Russia.

"According to the data that the scientists obtained after a full examination of 11 Russian cosmonauts, during space voyage the volume of gray matter in humans decreases while the volumes of brain’s white matter and cerebrospinal fluid increase," the researcher said.

According to MRI conducted before the space mission (60-30 days prior to the flight) and after the mission (on Day 9 and 6 months after the flight) the volume of white matter changes in certain brain zones in cosmonauts. "It has been discovered that the volume of white matter in the areas connected with movement control, equilibrium and perception of body position increases. Most likely it happens because the brain has to develop new strategies, to develop motor control to the new conditions," the scientist noted.

This is caused by the fact that the movement mechanics are completely different in space, being more similar to those observed in swimming. "These are completely new strategies that the brain needs to develop and implement, at least for some period of time," the researcher explained.

Decrease in brain's gray matter volume

Additionally, according to the department head, the MRI demonstrated that the gray matter decreases in certain areas. "This alarmed us, because it could have been a sign of some neurodegenerative processes. However, it became clear that this is a reversible process. Some 6-7 months after returning from space the amount of gray matter practically doesn’t differ from baseline," the scientist said.

Thus, one cannot say that neuron death is accelerated in space. "One can talk here, rather, about the thickening of the gray matter due to the increased volumes of cerebrospinal fluid and the expansion of cerebral ventricles," the researcher noted.

According to the scientists, brain changes do not have any functional effects. "The cognitive functions are not affected. According to all tests conducted, no serious deviations in cognitive functions and behavior of cosmonauts are observed. On the contrary, the cosmonauts perform a large volume of complicated tasks, have a vast cognitive load and cope with it quite well," the scientist stressed.

According to the current data, there is no correlation between the brain changes and cosmonauts’ health condition. That is, a person in space changes without realizing it, while after returning to Earth in the course of six months all brain changes disappear.

However, as the researcher noted, the changes discovered are included in the list of risks of space travel. The study will continue until 2022, and the scientists expect to extend it in order to gain a deeper insight into the effect of these brain changes on the functional activity as well as to collect more data which can be used to plan lengthy space expeditions.