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Cosmonaut’s brain scans show space does strange things to motor skills and vision

Imagine you could shoot the perfect target, but you had to wear glasses to do so. This is a compromise that some space travelers may unwittingly make when venturing off the planet.

A study released Friday examined the brains of eight male Russian cosmonauts about seven months after returning from long missions to the International Space Station.

The researchers found minor changes in the brains of the cosmonauts that suggested the men were more skilled but had slightly weaker vision.

“They actually acquired some sort of new motor skill, like riding a bicycle,” Steven Jillings, lead author of the study, told Business Insider.

The researchers used a type of MRI to produce 3D images of the brains of cosmonauts.

The scans showed an increased amount of tissue in the cerebellum: the part of the brain responsible for balance, coordination and posture (shown in green in the video below).

Illustration of Steven Jillings and Ben Jeurissen using MRtrix3. (University of Antwerp)

But the scans also showed that people living in space may have difficulty seeing up close. Both of these changes could potentially be lasting.

Changes in motor skills after space travel

Any human brain, whether it has been in space or not, can adapt to new environments and experiences. Many athletes, for example, learn specific motor skills directly related to their sport.

“If you were to do an MRI study where you compare normal people to athletes or people who really use their motor skills like darts, for example, you would hypothesize to find changes in the cerebellum,” Jillings said.

“It’s not just because they trained once and then it changes and it comes back. It’s actually something that lasts in the brain.”

On average, the Russian cosmonauts in the study spent six months aboard the space station. The researchers expected to see temporary changes in the brains of the cosmonauts, but were surprised to find that the improved motor skills were still there several months after they returned to Earth.

“The difficulty with studying these cosmonauts is that you don’t really have a benchmark – nothing on Earth that can really compare to,” Jillings said.

“It’s possible that when they go on their next assignment, they’ll actually be able to adapt more quickly.”

Brains move through space, potentially resulting in blurred vision

Numerous previous studies have found that astronauts undergo physical changes in microgravity, including muscle and bone loss.

Astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS typically exercise more than two hours a day to combat this process. They may also feel disoriented or have motion sickness as their body adjusts to a weightless environment.

An important difference between life in space and on Earth is that our blood and bodily fluids normally move against the downward force of gravity, whereas in space, the bodily fluids of astronauts move upward.

The new study found that microgravity also causes the brain to shift upwards. This in turn redistributes the fluids in which the brain floats.

Jillings said her study found evidence that fluid could build up behind the eye, causing swelling. This could alter the near vision of astronauts, leading to a condition called neuro-ocular syndrome associated with space flight.

A 2012 survey found the same effect in many NASA astronauts – up to 60% of those studied said they saw less clearly aboard the ISS. NASA even flies eyeglasses into space in case an astronaut’s vision changes.

But Jillings said there is still a lot to be learned about this phenomenon, especially because not all astronauts or cosmonauts return to Earth with poor vision, and most of the astronauts studied only developed impaired vision afterwards. ‘an eye. Some also regain their vision soon after returning to Earth.

Additionally, many Russian cosmonauts have extremely sharp eyesight to begin with, so even after completing a stay in space, their vision is still normal compared to the average person.

“The fact that we’re seeing the small decrease probably means that there are effects common to all people who spend six months in space,” Jillings said.

Scientists are still trying to determine to what extent the visual impairment could be permanent.

An April study from the University of Texas found that swelling in astronauts’ brains persisted for a year after returning to Earth. But Jillings said there are no long-term follow-up studies to see how long the disease really lasts beyond.

“There aren’t a lot of studies on the brains of astronauts,” he said.

Overall, Jillings added, it’s good news that her study found no serious health effects related to space travel.

Previous studies, on the other hand, have suggested that radiation in space could lead to neurodegeneration, which could accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease in astronauts.

“We found no evidence of damaging changes to the brain,” Jillings said. “It’s actually more of an adaptation.”

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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