Long-term Space Travel Could Cause Brain Damage

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This image shows the planned configuration of six iROSA solar arrays intended to augment power on the International Space Station. The roll-up arrays arrive on the SpaceX-22 resupply mission. (Credits: NASA/Johnson Space Center/Boeing)

A study led by researchers at the University of Gothenburg indicates that long-duration spaceflight could result in brain damage. The study, published in the JAMA Neurology scientific journal, involved the study of five Russian cosmonauts who lived on the International Space Station (ISS).

Blood samples were taken from the cosmonauts 20 days before their departure to the ISS. On average, they then stayed in space for 169 days (approximately five and a half months). The participants’ mean age was 49.

After their return to Earth, follow-up blood samples were taken on three occasions: one day, one week, and about three weeks respectively after landing. Five biomarkers for brain damage were analyzed. They were neurofilament light (NFL), glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), total tau (T-tau), and two amyloid beta proteins.

For three of the biomarkers — NFL, GFAP and the amyloid beta protein Aβ40 — the concentrations were significantly elevated after the space sojourn. The peak readings did not occur simultaneously after the men’s return to Earth, but their biomarker trends nonetheless broadly tallied over time.

“This is the first time that concrete proof of brain-cell damage has been documented in blood tests following space flights. This must be explored further and prevented if space travel is to become more common in the future,” says Henrik Zetterberg, professor of neuroscience and one of the study’s two senior coauthors.

Zetterberg and his colleagues are discussing follow-up studies.

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