Spaceflight has impact on cosmonauts' brains

Date: 25 October 2018

Introduction: A trip into space impacts the brain of a space traveller, according to new international research, led by the University of Antwerp.

"Changes occur in the grey and white matter and cerebrospinal fluid,” says Dr Angelique Van Ombergen (UAntwerp). “And some of those changes remain detectable even seven months after the mission has ended.”

An international team of scientists conducted a unique study on Russian cosmonauts. Ten cosmonauts were put into an mri scanner before and shortly after their space missions (which lasted six months, on average), and again seven months after their return. “We started this research in 2013”, says Dr Angelique Van Ombergen. “This kind of study always takes a long time, as very few people actually go into space.”

The researchers focused on the cosmonauts’ brains. Van Ombergen: “We wanted to find out whether their brains would change during a space mission, and also whether those changes could still be seen half a year later. In the first phase we specifically looked at brain composition, the structural anatomy of the brain, rather than analysing the functional aspects.”

The scans taken shortly after the cosmonauts’ missions showed several changes in different tissue types. “The volume of grey matter, or neuronal tissue, had decreased throughout the entire brain”, explains PhD student Steven Jillings (UAntwerp). “An analysis of the cerebrospinal fluid compartment size, whose functions include removing waste products and protecting the brain, also showed changes. Because there’s no gravity pulling on cosmonauts’ brains and more fluid going to their heads, the balance of cerebrospinal fluid circulation appears to be disturbed. This is still noticeable even after the mission.”

Link to visual problems?

Seven months later, the cosmonauts went into the scanner again. “The grey matter had returned to levels almost similar to those seen before the journey, though there were still some persisting differences,” says Peter zu Eulenburg, professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. “The changes in the cerebrospinal fluid compartment, on the other hand, were still continuing. The reason for this and the potential consequences for cosmonauts require further investigation. Earlier research has shown that space travellers can suffer from visual acuity problems in the longer term. There may be a link to the changes we identified.”

The study, in which the Vision Lab (UAntwerp) as well as the Universities of Leuven and Liège participated, was carried out with the support of the Belgian Science Policy and the European and Russian space agencies, ESA and Roscosmos respectively. The findings have recently been published in the renowned New England Journal of Medicine.


Dr Angelique van Ombergen

Phone: +32 (0)3265 24 61 
Mobile: +32 (0)473 / 237 820