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2 Nov, 2017 11:00

Long-term space missions can warp your brain, study finds

Long-term space missions can warp your brain, study finds

Spending extended periods in zero gravity has been shown to adversely affect the human body and now new research shows living in space could even cause the brain to float upwards inside the skull, highlighting the need for artificial gravity.

Space travel has up until relatively recently been the purview of nation states. Nowadays a host of private companies are battling it out alongside some of the world's most powerful nations in the race to the moon, Mars and beyond.

The intensity of this new-age space race brings with it a host of new challenges, not least in the domain of health for future astronauts who could spend years living in zero or micro-gravity environments.

Research, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, sought to investigate and explain some of these challenges, specifically relating to the brain. Researchers studied MRI scans of 16 astronauts before and after they spent a few weeks orbiting the earth on the International Space Station (ISS), and 18 astronauts before and after spending a few months there and came to some alarming conclusions.

“Exposure to the space environment has permanent effects on humans that we simply do not understand. What astronauts experience in space must be mitigated to produce safer space travel for the public,”said study lead author Donna Roberts.

Astronauts have previously complained of feeling pressure on the head and suffering from impaired vision. Other effects have been well documented, this new study shows that the position of the brain inside the skull actually changes, floating upwards, narrowing the space between the “the top of the brain and the inner table of the skull.”

Roberts’ findings concluded that “significant changes in brain structure occur during long-duration space flight.” But more importantly the “parts of the brain that are most affected – the frontal and parietal lobes – control movement of the body and higher executive function.” The longer spent in space the worse the effects would be.

But what is to be done if humans want to continue to explore our solar system for longer and longer periods? Science fiction has long provided an answer – artificial gravity. Although still contained within the sci-fi realm, theoretically, building a spinning space station would create enough centrifugal force to create the effect of being pinned to the surface of the vehicle, just like the station in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’

Some astronauts have spent an extraordinary amount of time in space. Recently NASA’s Scott Kelly, who along along with twin brother Mark took part in a wide ranging experiment designed to study the effects of space travel on the human body, spent 340 days living and working aboard the ISS, and astronaut Peggy Whitson recently completed a 288-day mission in space.

To date, the longest continuous time in space was 438 days, a record held by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov.