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Astronauts may have visual disturbances due to fluid in their brains
A new study has shown that longer stays in space change the brain of astronauts. Among other things, these changes lead to visual disturbances and persist for a long time after returning to earth.
More fluid in the brain
Longer space flights change the brain: astronauts who have been living in zero gravity for months have more fluid in the brain, which can affect their vision long after they return to Earth. This is what researchers around Angelique Van Ombergen from the University of Antwerp (Belgium) found out. Her study results were recently published in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Gravity pulls body fluids down
On Earth, gravity pulls body fluids down to your feet. This is not the case in space.
"As soon as weightlessness is reached, body fluids flow into the upper part of the body," said Van Ombergen, according to a report by the specialist magazine "New Scientist".
"That's why astronauts on the space station look like they have a bloated head on pictures."
Van Ombergen and her colleagues examined the brains of eleven Russian cosmonauts before and after their stay in space to determine the effects of microgravity on the brain ventricles (brain cavities).
Effects on brain function still unclear
The scientists found that when the cosmonauts returned, the volume of the ventricles had increased by an average of more than 11 percent to absorb the additional fluid that poured into their heads at weightlessness.
Seven months after returning, the ventricles were still more than six percent larger than before the cosmonauts started.
According to the report, it is not yet clear what effects this can have on brain function.
The team found a correlation between the volume of one of the four ventricles and the loss of visual acuity.
But it wasn't strong enough to be sure that the inflated ventricle was actually causing the visual disturbances, which is a common complaint among astronauts.
Important aspect for a trip to Mars
According to Van Ombergen, the fact that there are changes in the brain should motivate further studies.
All of the cosmonauts in this study were on the ISS for about six months. We therefore do not know whether the longer they live in weightlessness the more pronounced the effect becomes.
This is an important aspect on longer flights, for example when traveling to Mars.
In addition, all of the people examined were men; the effects could be different for women, the scientist said.
"We really need to check the brain, check the visual system, check perception because we don't know if this has any impact," says Van Ombergen.
And we have to “examine people who have spent different periods in space to see if the effect continues to increase,” explained the researcher. "Nobody knows that at the moment." (Ad)