A team of American scientists is currently in Cologne, Germany after partnering with a special group from the German Aerospace Center investigate the effect of simulated spaceflight conditions on the human brain. There are several environmental factors that affect astronauts during their spaceflight including changes in gravitational pull (i.e. cephalad fluid shifts in their body), changes in the composition of the air they are breathing, changes in their diet to include more salt, etc. The specific question that this group in Germany is asking is how the human brain adapts to the cephalad fluid shift and increased levels of carbon dioxide exposure that may be experienced while on-board the International Space Station (ISS).
A specialized simulated environment has been constructed to re-create an environment similar to the one experienced on the ISS. The team is using special non-invasive technology such as the Volumetric Induction Phase-Shift Spectroscopy (VIPS) device which continuously monitors fluid shifts in the brain (from processes such as cerebral edema/swelling or bleeding), and the c-FLOW device which monitors cerebral blood flow. They are also using MRI imaging and transcranial Doppler, as well as cognitive testing to monitor behavior and mental capabilities.
The goal of this project to to provide some evidence of the physiologic changes that may be occurring in the brains of our astronauts while they are in space flight, and may provide some clues as to the etiology behind the visual changes that are seen in the returning astronauts. It is important for us to better understand these physiologic changes before we can hope to safely extend the mission periods of these astronauts for longer trips such as what would be required to travel to Mars. We greatly look forward to the results of these studies to be published in the coming years!