Astronaut's brain is altered after a stay in outer space

Date: 20 May 2015

Introduction: Antwerp scientists were the first to prove that when astronauts spend a long time in space, their brain is altered. This discovery may also be good news for people who are bedridden for a long period of time.


Professor Floris Wuyts, researcher Ben Jeurissen and PhD student Angelique Van Ombergen, who all work in the Department of Physics of the University of Antwerp, are studying the impact of spaceflight on an astronaut’s brain, along with an international team of researchers and the space organisations ESA and ROSCOSMOS. Astronauts undergo an MRI before and after the flight, which the researchers analyse down to the smallest detail.

“Upon their return, astronauts temporarily seem to suffer from balance problems. In some cases, walking also proves more difficult”, Wuyts explained. “To date everyone assumed that these problems were related to the peripheral vestibular system but we now are the first to prove that the brain is effectively altered.”

Van Ombergen established two alterations: “We noticed an alteration in the motor cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for executing and coordinating movements. After a prolonged stay in space the activity in the insular cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for our balance, is also reduced.”

This discovery was published in the scientific journal Brain Structure and Function. Wuyts and Van Ombergen are set to continue their research in the following years, searching for possible alterations in the brain of people who journeyed into space several times. However, the research is not just relevant for astronauts, a rather small category of the population.

Additional treatment
“It is also very relevant for people who are bedridden for several months”, Wuyts explains. “Astronauts also barely move around. We noticed that returning astronauts had trouble remembering playing a game of tennis, for example. In combination with the other alterations we found in the astronaut’s brain, this made us think of the next step in revalidation, namely “imagine that you are playing tennis”.

“Patients often are given physiotherapy to prepare them for when they are up and about again. But what if bedridden patients spent enough time “thinking” that they are practicing a sport? This additional treatment may better prepare them for when they start to walk again. As well as training their muscles, this exercise also helps the brain’s control centre.”