Ageing and space brains

ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli in training for Neurospat experiment at Star City (S. Corvaja/ESA)

Our brains are changing all the time – nerves and connecting cells are rearranging themselves with every new experience. In space, scientists peered inside astronauts’ head to understand how they adapt to a whole new environment. On Earth, new tools for testing spatial cognition will be of great help for our ageing brains.

 

Are perception and focus dramatically altered in space? It appears that the brain works in low gear during spaceflight. The Neurospat experiment provided firm evidence of lasting cognitive impairment for astronauts on long-term missions. The most prominent result was the decline of reaction time, accuracy and attention in weightlessness. The prefrontal cortex, in charge of executive and control functions, appeared to be particularly affected. Sleep deprivation, stress and heavy workload during the mission are also to blame. European scientists hope that these results help to ageing and pathological diseases. Everybody particularly exposed to stressors such as extreme fatigue, sleep loss or hypoxia could benefit from it.

Facts and figures

  • Five astronauts, 62 electrodes and a huge stream of data were used to help understand how the human brain works
  • First experiment ever using ESA’s Multi-electrode Electroencephalography Module in the Columbus Lab
  • This neuroscience study was possible in part thanks to the SURE programme, an initiative which opened up new research opportunities in space for Eastern European countries
  • Neurospat provided insight into the astronauts’ occasional slips in performance. A diminished cognitive capacity should be taken into account when planning key activities, such as spacewalks and operating spacecraft

Up or down?

Living in weightlessness can be very disorienting because our Earthly perception of up or down no longer applies. It is a heavy burden on the brain and there is little knowledge on how it deals with it. Five astronauts, 62 electrodes and a huge stream of data were used to help understand how the human brain works. The astronauts completed tasks such as judging object orientation and navigating a virtual space. Neurospat provided insight into the astronauts’ occasional slips in performance. For missions to the Moon and Mars it is vital to know what happens to the brain in the long run, especially during spacewalks and operating spacecraft. This neuroscience study was possible thanks to the SURE programme, an initiative which opened up new research opportunities in space for Eastern European countries.

“Taking your experiment to space is everybody’s dream, and I never thought it would be so challenging.”

László Balázs – Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology in Hungary

 


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