🌌 How Space Travel Affects the Brain 🚀

The rocket ship blasts off towards the moon almost seamlessly.

Yet, behind this picture of space travel facility is a plethora of elements that are involved in a seamless flight take off. Technicians, engineers, physicians, pilots and more are all involved in space travel.

Astronauts themselves experience three times the g-force of gravity on the take off alone, which is barely survivable. In order for astronauts to handle this immense amount of force, they need to train and prepare for months if not years beforehand. Astronaut Pat Pilcher describes spacecraft take off as “It was the sound of immense power unleashed in barely controlled fury.”

No matter the preparation astronauts endure, humans are just not built for living in space. This piece of information begs the question, how does space travel affect astronauts brains?

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Astronauts preparing for taking off towards space. Source.

Humans have developed to accommodate gravity utilizing it to stay grounded and locate objects. In human ears, there is a location called the vestibular apparatus which orients us by sensing gravity. Since astronauts live a gravity-free lifestyle, they find it difficult to balance themselves and “approximately 70% of astronauts experience space motion sickness (SMS) during the first week of the mission [source]” as a result.

 

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Diagram of the ear, including Vestibular Apparatus. Source.

Additionally, astronauts often experience sleep disturbances due to drastic changes in circadian rhythm during space travel.  As astronauts orbit in space, they are exposed to a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes according to NASA.gov. When humans are exposed to light such as that from a sunrise, melatonin secretion is suppressed causing a sense of alertness. From an evolutionary perspective, humans responding to light exposure was extremely beneficial. Our ancestors needed time to hunt and find food and the sun was their alarm clock. Yet, this situation does not bode well for astronauts. Add blue light from the technology used in space travel and floating, and many astronauts become dependent on sleep mediation to get a few hours of shut-eye.

NASA recognizes that sleep is an issue for astronauts and is developing Light-Emitting Diode technology (LED) which changes the lighting around astronauts to help them sleep better or feel more awake.

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Astronaunt trying to sleep. Source.

Additionally, cramped in a small space for months on end the astronauts can become irritable and aggressive. NASA.org claims that they carefully choose a crew that will get along for months to ensure safe relationships between passengers.

Most disturbing is the cancer-causing radiation astronauts are exposed to. Astronauts are exposed to cancer-causing radiation on their missions causing a heightened risk of cancer in their brains.

Lastly, I wanted to share an MRI study from 2017 that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers take MRI scans of 18 astronauts before and after space travel. The researchers found that in almost 95% of astronauts after long space travel (more than 1648 days) had narrowing of their central sulcus. On the other hand, astronauts from shorter flights (around 14 days) only experienced this symptom 20% of the time. For reference, the central sulcus is a groove in the brain that separates the frontal lobe from the parietal lobe.

 

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Central sulcus location. Source.

 

Narrowing of the central sulcus is an important scientific discovery yet it is still unclear of its long-term effects of significance. Preferably, this study could have also tested more subjects to provide a more definite answer. Studying astronauts brains is extremely difficult because there are very few humans that have traveled successfully to space and back who are willing to be included in studies.
Understanding the effects of space travel on humans is extremely important in our mission to explore space and potentially find life out there.
To the moon and back…

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Sources

[1] https://www.nasa.gov/content/neuroscience

[2] https://www.airspacemag.com/ask-astronaut/ask-astronaut-what-does-launch-feel-what-thoughts-and-emotions-run-through-your-mind-180959920/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4206847/

[4] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/nasa-research-reveals-biological-clock-misalignment-effects-on-sleep-for-astronauts

[5] http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1705129

[6] https://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/glossary/central-sulcus/

 

 

One thought on “🌌 How Space Travel Affects the Brain 🚀

  1. I see you…It’s Ella! You finally wrote it after so much pestering. Next up should be the neuroscience of why Samoyeds are the best dogs in the world…not biased or anything. Also, you didn’t mention me in your post! I am the brain behind the blog, so…

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