Far from consensus, science is still investigating the potential health impacts after long journeys into space. Now, a team of researchers — including members of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden — and cosmonauts have discovered that seasons under the influence of microgravity can potentially cause brain damage.
Published on the JAMA Neurology platform, the study investigated the effects of space travel on five cosmonauts, who remained on the International Space Station (ISS), through blood samples collected at different times. On average, each of the survey participants spent 169 days in orbit — approximately five and a half months. After analyzing the samples, the scientists observed elevated concentrations of three biomarkers linked to brain damage.
Until then, other adverse effects of space travel on the human body were known, such as muscle atrophy, decreased bone mass, deterioration of vision and alteration of the bacterial flora in the intestine. However, this is the first evidence related to the brain.
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“This is the first time that concrete evidence of brain cell damage has been documented in blood tests after space flights,” explained neuroscientist Henrik Zetterberg of the University of Gothenburg. “This should be further explored and avoided so that space travel becomes more common in the future,” he points out.
In the study, scientists followed five male cosmonauts, with an average age of 49 years. Blood samples were collected at four different times: 20 days before the trip to the ISS; one day after returning to Earth; one week after returning; and three weeks after the return.
The biomarkers that the study analyzed were: neurofilament light (NFL); glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP); total tau protein (T-tau); and two beta-amyloid proteins. Of these markers, three—NFL, GFAP, and the beta amyloid protein Aβ40—were at significantly increased concentrations after the ISS stay.
So far, researchers haven’t been able to identify how cosmonauts’ brains were affected by the trip, and they’re not even sure if they still do. On the other hand, the three biomarkers are related to neurological disorders. In fact, other researches have linked them with brain damage. So, it is possible that the effects will only manifest in the future.
For now, the research is still at an early stage, and now more data from other travelers will be needed to find out exactly how and in what ways time in space negatively affects the brain. “If we can figure out what causes the damage, the biomarkers we look at can help us figure out how best to remedy the problem,” Zetterberg wagers.
To access the full article on the alteration of biomarkers in long space travel, published on the JAMA Neurology scientific platform, click on here.
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