astronaut in space

Fighter pilot study may reveal how space changes brains of astronauts

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A study examining the brains of F16 fighter pilots could shed light on how astronauts’ brains change when they’re in space.

The researchers recruited 10 fighter jet pilots from the Belgian Air Force, alongside a control group of 10 non-pilots, and performed MRI scans of their brains to establish the first-ever study of functional brain connectivity in fighter pilots.

The scans revealed that pilots with more flight experience showed specific brain connectivity patterns in areas related to processing sensorimotor information – the brain processes that cause motor responses in the central nervous system.

They also showed differences in brain connectivity compared with non-pilots.

Blasting off into space places significant demands on the body including altered levels of gravity, from the G-forces present during blast-off to the low-gravity environment in space.

Other issues include rapidly interpreting sensory and visual stimuli that are sometimes conflicting, while controlling a complex vehicle at extreme speeds.

These factors are a potent cocktail and previous research has suggested that the brain may undergo structural and functional changes after space flight and astronaut training, in a process called neural plasticity.

Understanding these changes could help scientists to better prepare astronauts for long journeys, which is crucial if humankind is ever to reach other planets.

A previous study of astronaut brains from the same team showed that not only did they exhibit changes after spending some time in space, but that those changes were still visible seven months after returning to Earth.

“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 [vestibular information],” said Prof Floris Wuyts of the University of Antwerp, senior author on the study.

“By establishing the specific brain connectivity characteristics of fighter pilots, we can gain more insight into the condition of astronauts after spaceflight.”

The researchers found differences in brain connectivity between experienced and less experienced pilots, suggesting that brain changes occur with an increased number of flight hours.

These differences included less connectivity in certain areas of the brain processing sensorimotor information, which may indicate the brain adapting to cope with the extreme conditions experienced during flight.

Experienced pilots also demonstrated increased connectivity in frontal areas of the brain that are likely involved in the cognitive demands of flying a complicated jet.

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