AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 3, 2017

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Astronauts' Brains Change Shape During Spaceflight

MRIs before and after space missions reveal that astronauts’ brains compress and expand during spaceflight, according to a University of Michigan study. The findings could have applications for treating other health conditions that affect brain function, says principal investigator Rachael Seidler, U-M professor of kinesiology and psychology. The study, believed to be the first to examine structural changes that take place in astronauts’ brains during spaceflight, found that the volume of gray matter increased or decreased, and the extent of the alteration depended on the length of time spent in space. Seidler and colleagues examined structural MRIs in 12 astronauts who spent two weeks as shuttle crew members, and 14 who spent six months on the International Space Station. All experienced increases and decreases in gray matter in different parts of the brain, with more pronounced changes the longer the astronauts spent in space. “We found large regions of gray matter volume decreases, which could be related to redistribution of cerebrospinal fluid in space,” Seidler said. “Gravity is not available to pull fluids down in the body, resulting in so-called puffy face in space. This may result in a shift of brain position or compression.”

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