NASA is currently examining astronaut brain changes in zero gravity, in order to establish how space missions might be affected by these transformations.
The U.S. space agency is monitoring the possible effects on brain structure and functionality by conducting brain MRIs and behavioral assessments.
The structural and functional imagining allows researchers to observe exactly what parts of the astronauts’ brain are used when carrying out a particular task. These tests take place prior to the mission and post-flight.
In addition, those on board the International Space Station (ISS) are also tested for their spatial memory, based on how easily they can imagine and manipulate a 3-D shape.
Another test involves completing a timed obstacle course meant to determine agility and physical fitness. There also sensory motor adaptation evaluations and computer exercises which measure the ability to move and think concurrently.
These assessments are taken immediately after joining the ISIS, mid-way through the 6-month flight, and at the end of the space mission, in order to track potential disparities.
By combining brain MRIs and behavioral analysis, scientists can determine the exact connection between physical alterations and conduct modifications.
“We are looking at the volume of different structures in the brain and whether they change in size or shape during spaceflight”, explained principal investigator Rachael D Seidler, director of University of Michigan’s neuromotor behavior laboratory.
According to prior testimonials and studies in this field, microgravity hampers astronauts from controlling their movements and carrying out mental tasks. In addition, those aboard the ISS have trouble keeping their balance and coordinating their movements. Sometimes they also experience perceptual illusions, as if their minds were playing a trick on them.
As researchers explain, this happens because normally on Earth the vestibular system allows humans to feel their movements relative to gravity, but in space this reference point is absent.
Consequently, the astronauts’ minds create distortions when it comes to sizes and shapes: objects are perceived as taller and shallower, and distances tend to be underestimated. Basically, mental representation of the 3-D world is disrupted, which can be greatly detrimental when it comes to completing space missions successfully.
Human performance can be affected, which can result in operational errors. For example, the collision between Progress M-34 and Mir Space Station, which occurred on June 25, 1997, was caused by failure to gauge closing speed accurately.
This also has the potential to raise difficulties for space explorers when carrying out iconic endeavors, like landing on Mars. These brain changes induced by gravity differences could result in failure to operate rovers or inability to use tools.
Therefore, it is essential for NASA to identify precisely the alterations that appear due to zero gravity, in order to see if these hindrances can be combated or at least reduced in any way. In addition, the space agency is also conducting this study with a view to see if brain modifications persist once the astronauts return to Earth, or if normal perception and motor skills are restored.
Image Source: Pixabay