05 May Space Flight: The Brain Seems to Have a Way to Adapt to Absence of Gravity
MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Juan Piantino, M.D., MCR
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Division of Neurology, School of Medicine
Director, Inpatient Child Neurology
Oregon Health Sciences University
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: Astronauts are exposed to several stressors during spaceflight, including radiation, lack of gravity, and sleep deprivation. The effects of those stressors on the brain remain unknown. Is it safe to travel to space? For how long can humans survive in space? What are the effects of spending months under zero gravity? With more extended missions, and an increased number of civilians traveling to space, there is increased interest in understanding what happens to our brains when we leave earth.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: Like the rest of our bodies, our brains have high water content. That water flows in and out of the brain, and in doing so, it helps remove waste generated during regular brain activity. When water does not flow efficiently, waste is not removed, affecting the way the brain functions.
Our study focused on how that water flows in and out of the brain in the absence of gravity. We discovered that novice astronauts on their first mission exhibit changes in their brains’ perivascular spaces (small channels through which water flows). Their perivascular spaces became longer. This enlargement was not seen in the astronauts who had already been to space.
Our findings suggest that the brain may undergo adaptations to spaceflight to allow efficient water circulation in the absence of gravity. Significantly, these adaptations were not associated with any neurological deficits.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: Gravity is a vital force in all life. Living organisms have adapted to live under gravitational pull. Notably, the brain seems to have a way to also adapt to the absence of gravity. However, the extent to which the brain can adapt to this new environment remains unknown.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: It is almost impossible to study the effects of zero gravity in space accurately. There are just not enough astronauts. However, we can replicate those conditions here on earth and learn more about these phenomena. Studies involving larger cohorts and longer exposure times are needed to better understand how the brain copes with space travel.
MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Response: I want to thank the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for providing the funds that allowed me to conduct this research. I would also like to thank the astronauts who volunteered for this study. Last, I would like to thank my collaborator, Dr. Rachael Seidler, for providing the data for this study.
Hupfeld, K.E., Richmond, S.B., McGregor, H.R. et al. Longitudinal MRI-visible perivascular space (PVS) changes with long-duration spaceflight. Sci Rep 12, 7238 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-11593-y
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