NASA is studying how zero gravity affects astronauts

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The researchers funded by the NASA are studying brain structures and function of the astronauts abroad the ISS or International Space Station to understand how brain changes in space and ways to deal with those changes.

Astronauts at the microgravity have experienced problems with balance and perceptual illusions.

The study is examining the changes in the brain structure and function and also determining how long it takes to recover after returning from space.

The study researchers are using brain imaging and behavioral assessment.

For the study, astronauts completed timed obstacle courses and tests of their spatial memory, or the ability to mentally picture and manipulate a three-dimensional shape, before and after spaceflight.

The spatial memory test is also performed abroad the station, along with sensory motor adaption tests and computerized exercises requiring them to move and think simultaneously.

Astronauts are tested shortly after arriving abroad the station, mid-way through and near the end of a six-month flight.

Pre-flight and post-flight the astronauts structural and magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans of the brain.

Rachael D Seidler, director of the University of Michigan’s Neuromotor Behaviour Laboratory said, “We are looking at the volume of different structures in the brain and whether they change in size or shape during spaceflight.”

The behavioral assessments and brain imaging are important to help identify the relationship between the physical changes in the brain and those in behavior, said Seilder.

Seidler said, “On Earth, your vestibular – or balance – system tells you how our head moves relative to gravity, but in space, the gravity reference is gone.”

Seidler said, “That causes these perceptual illusions, as well as difficulty coordinating movement of the eyes and head.”

These difficulties could have serious consequences for astronauts, especially when changing between the gravitational environments, such as landing on Mars.

In those cases, astronauts should be able to perform tasks such as driving rover, using tools, and they must be capable of escaping in a landing emergency.

The study could also show whether the astronauts return to normal post-flight as the brain changes back, or if the brain instead learns to compensate for the changes that happened in space.

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