New study uses fighter pilots to learn how space travel affects the brain
Space travel places great stress on the mind and body. With an eye on its implications for future space travel, a new study out of Belgium is the first to examine how flight that involves exposure to significant changes in g-forces impacts the functioning of pilots' brains.
While the human brain can alter its structure and function in response to changing environmental conditions thanks to neuroplasticity, it is recognized that traveling in a zero-gravity environment can be detrimental to health. Long-haul space missions, especially, have been shown to lead to cognitive problems.
Given humankind’s ongoing fascination with space travel, it is important that scientists 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 come by, so researchers turned to the next best thing, jet fighter pilots. At the end of the day, both must endure changing gravity levels (g-levels) and be able to process often conflicting sensory information rapidly.
“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 on the study.
The study examined the brains of F16 fighter pilots, comparing the differences between male pilots with an average of 1,025 hours of F16 flying experience to a control group of non-pilots. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were taken of the participants to observe changes in functional brain connectivity – in other words, how different regions of the brain interact with one another.
In addition to studying the differences in brain function between pilots and non-pilots, researchers looked at whether the amount of flight time a pilot had accrued influenced functional brain connectivity and neuroplasticity.
Comparing pilots with non-pilots, the data showed that, in pilots, there was a greater connection between the 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 exhibited greater brain changes than the less experienced pilots, suggesting that neuroplasticity increased commensurate with flight experience. Further, the more experienced pilots showed increased connectivity in the areas of the brain responsible for processing the complex information required to fly a jet.
It is hoped that the data collected in this study, the first of its kind, can be used for future studies designed to gain a greater understanding of 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 the brain’s adaptations towards unusual gravitational environments, such as during spaceflight,” said Dr Wilhelmina Radstake, first author on the study.
The new study appeared in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.
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