Space travel places great stress on the mind and body. With a look at its implications for future space travel, a new study out of Belgium is the first to examine how flight involving exposure to significant changes in g-forces affects how pilots’ brains function.
While the human brain can change its structure and function in response to changing environmental conditions thanks to neuroplasticity, it is known that traveling in a zero-gravity environment can be harmful to health. Long-distance space missions, in particular, have been shown to lead to cognitive problems.
Given humanity’s continued fascination with space travel, it is important for scientists to understand the effect of changing gravitational conditions on the brain’s ability to adapt. But why study pilots and not astronauts? Well, astronauts are rare and hard to find, so researchers turned to the next best thing, fighter pilots. At the end of the day, both must endure changing levels of gravity (g-levels) and be able to rapidly process often conflicting sensory information.
“Fighter pilots have some interesting similarities with astronauts, such as exposure to altered g-levels, and the need to interpret visual information and information coming from head movements and acceleration,” said Professor Floris Wuyts of the University of Antwerp. senior author under study.
The study examined the brains of F16 fighter pilots, comparing differences between male pilots with an average of 1,025 hours of F16 flight experience with a non-pilot control group. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were taken of the participants to observe changes in the functional connectivity of the brain – in other words, how different regions of the brain interact with each other.
In addition to studying differences in brain function between pilots and non-pilots, the researchers looked at whether the amount of flight time a pilot had accumulated affected functional brain connectivity and neuroplasticity.
Comparing pilots to non-pilots, the data showed that, in pilots, there was greater connectivity between areas of the brain that process visual information and information about changes in head position, direction and movement (vestibular information).
Pilots with more flight hours showed greater brain changes than pilots with less experience, suggesting that neuroplasticity increased in proportion to flight experience. Further, the more experienced pilots showed increased connectivity in areas of the brain responsible for processing the complex information required to fly a plane.
It is hoped that the data collected in this first-of-its-kind study can be used for future studies designed to better understand the impact of space travel on brain function.
“By demonstrating that vestibular and visual information is processed differently in pilots compared to non-pilots, we can recommend that pilots are a suitable study group to gain more insight into brain adaptations to unusual gravitational environments, such as during space flights”, said Dr. Wilhelmina Radstake, first author on the study.
The new study appeared in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.
Source: Frontiers via Scimex
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