The brain is one of the most complex organs in the human body and has been studied extensively for years — on Earth at least.
Now, a University professor is trying to uncover unique effects the organ experiences as it adapts to microgravity, or the feeling of weightlessness, in space.
Kinesiology Prof. Rachael Seidler, through a partnership with NASA, is exploring how long periods of time in space affect the brain and its functions, as well as investigating potential countermeasures for the neurological effects of microgravity.
It currently takes several weeks to recover from spaceflight, and her research on how the brain reacts to time in space could help speed up that process.
Seidler said the project has connections to research about brain adaption on Earth as well.
“I’ve always been interested in monitoring adaptation and how people learn new motor skills,” she said. “Adapting to the microgravity environment is just another example of how people do that.”
Seidler’s other work focuses on the elderly and patients with Parkinson’s. She said there are parallels between the motor control loss that comes with aging and the experiences of astronauts returning home.
“There are some age declines in the vestibular system that can contribute to balance loss, so there is a connection there,” she said. “I also study how people learn new motor skills — what are the brain areas that are engaged when the brain begins to learn motor memory? How is this process affected by Parkinson’s disease or aging?”
Dean of Kinesiology Ronald Zernicke said he thought Seidler’s research touched on an interesting part of the transition period for astronauts. He cited, in particular, the case of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who has been in space for nearly 400 days — a record-breaking flight.
“(Kelly) is coming down in March, who’s been up there for 382 days,” he said. “Your depth perception, your memory, motor control — those can all be affected because of the lack of gravity and the normal way in which the body is functioning. The brain interprets signals in space differently in some respects, than it does to being in gravity.”
Seidler said she is particularly interested in exploring how certain brain regions change during spaceflight as they adapt to different gravity levels. She will explore those changes through a series of tests on astronauts both on Earth and in the space station.
“We’re doing a bunch of measurements before and after astronauts go to the International Space Station,” she said. “We’re using MRIs to measure brain structures and function. We’re measuring their balance, their functional mobility and doing a lot of cognitive tests. Then while they’re on the space station they also do some behavioral tests for us, some motor tasks that we have them do on a computer.”
These measurements and tests include obstacle courses to determine how quickly they can move over and under obstacles as well as cognitive tests while under an MRI, a scanning device that provides a detailed picture of the brain.
Zernicke said though Seidler’s current work relates the brain to its environment in microgravity, the implications of her research could also be applied to the brain as it functions on Earth.
“There’s still so much unknown associated with the brain,” he said. “The more you can learn in different contexts, the better it will be for finding out whether it’s on Earth, under different conditions, under adaptations, how the brain adapts and responds to different kinds of stimuli. Microgravity, or being in space, is a different stimuli than people typically have. It’s a unique situation and that unique situation can potentially provide some insights in terms of how the brain functions.”