THERE ARE ALSO CHANGES IN NEURAL GRAY MATTER, WHICH INCREASES OR DECREASES DEPENDING ON THE FUNCTIONS CARRIED OUT BY THE BRAIN AREA INVOLVED.
in a straight line, and then walking that same line while turning one’s head back and forth or responding to random disturbances. The additional task draws cognitive resources away from attention to walking, and automatic walking functions suffer as a result. The Path Ahead Why should we care about these observations, since their effects on cognitive performance and mental health can be subtle and vary between individuals? So far, these effects have not caused a US space mission to be canceled or postponed for medical reasons. But there is one overwhelming reason to care. Future missions will be of unprecedented difficulty and, most notably, require a tremendous amount of crew autonomy. For a future mission to Mars, for example, support from Earth- based experts will be extremely limited, and augmentation of supplies through cargo delivery essentially impossible.
One-way radio transmission time can take 20 minutes; obviously that is an enormous time span if an urgent problem needs attention from Earth. Furthermore, almost by definition, when venturing into an unknown realm, not all of the risks can be identified and mitigated ahead of time. Astronauts on these voyages will need every possible edge to maintain the ability to carry out the mission and return safely. Part of this edge comes from understanding and mitigating the more critical of the concerns discussed here. Research is currently underway to address some of the multiple effects of future spaceflight. But this is a daunting task, given the complexity and density of interaction, interconnection, and permutations. And as we’ve seen, it is not just intra-brain interactions that are of interest, but also their interplay with such external factors as sleep, workload, radiation, and other people. Another question is whether any of what we have learned so far is relevant to earthbound mortals. One might make the case that what happens to highly select individuals, placed under extreme pressure in an unusual environment, has little to do with the rest of us. Astronauts are certainly not average people, as far as test subjects go. Selection requires that they are healthy, fit, and maintain healthy lifestyles. They need to be extremely compliant and follow directions; we are able to continuously monitor and measure nutrition, exercise, sleep, workloads, and task challenges. But the overall research opportunity provided by space travel will allow us to understand how the brain adapts to multiple stressors, presented simultaneously, over long periods of time. Studying astronauts (especially while in space) dramatically reduces uncontrolled factors, which are troubling confounds in terrestrial studies. Spaceflight stressors and other challenges are indeed different and may never be matched with those on Earth. The manner in which the brain reorganizes to compensate for them, however, can tell us a great deal that is relevant to our own compensatory capacities in the face of disease and aging. l
Part of every mission is to capture and share images and audio that have never been seen or heard before.
STELLAR ENDING AND MARS PHOTOS: NASA.GOV
18 DANA FOUNDATION CEREBRUM | Spr ing 2021
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