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Brains in Space

                                                                                                                                               IMAGE CREDIT: NASA

By Alex Piazza

Scott Kelly etched his spot in the record books this fall.

In October, he recorded his 382nd day in space—the most among any American astronaut.

But his latest stint in a weightless environment will end in March when Kelly wraps up his mission aboard the International Space Station.

Then comes the transition period when Kelly has to readapt to Earth’s gravity. It’s during this transition period when many astronauts struggle with depth perception, memory and motor control.

“There is no up or down in space,” said Rachael Seidler, professor of kinesiology and psychology at the University of Michigan. “So when astronauts return to Earth, it takes some time for them to adapt because the way their brain interpreted the signals in space is no longer relevant for our gravitational environment. They need time to re-adapt before they can drive a car or maintain their balance well. They need, in some cases, a couple of weeks or a month to recover.”

Seidler is working with NASA to shed some light on how the brain changes and responds to microgravity. The results of her research will help scientists and physicians develop countermeasures to target and treat the negative neurological effects of spaceflight, said Mill Reschke, chief scientist for NASA Neuroscience.

“For decades, scientists working with astronauts have known that spaceflight has an effect on neurological systems,” Reschke said. “Scientists also have believed the changes we observe in spatial orientation, balance and disturbances in the control of eye movements needed to maintain clear vision when the head is moved must be the result of structural changes in the brain. Dr. Seidler is making a major step forward with her investigation of changes in the brain acquired during flight, and relating these changes to functional performance following flight.”

Seidler recruited astronauts from the International Space Station to measure their brain structure and function before, during and after spaceflight. Astronauts complete timed obstacle courses and undergo spatial memory tests that examine their ability to mentally picture and manipulate 3D shapes.

"The brain itself is very fascinating. It’s one of our last great scientific frontiers."

Aboard the space station, astronauts perform computerized exercises that require them to move and think simultaneously. Magnetic resonance imaging scans also allow Seidler to detect changes in the size and shape of astronauts’ brains before and after spaceflight.

“Dr. Seidler provides new insights about the adaptability of the healthy brain, especially as it involves the complex interplay among perception, cognition, and motor function,” said U-M School of Kinesiology Dean Ron Zernicke. “Microgravity is a unique means to discover new knowledge about brain function.”

Seidler will continuously monitor the brain structure and function of astronauts aboard the International Space Station, with a goal to wrap up her data collection by 2018.

“This is a study that takes a lot of patience because there aren’t a lot of astronauts aboard the International Space Station that we can recruit from,” she said. “But regardless of the timeline, this type of research has major implications on the health and wellbeing of our astronauts. The brain itself is very fascinating. It’s one of our last great scientific frontiers.”