Anyone who has watched a science fiction movie about travelling in space knows that the weightless environment of microgravity on a space ship affects your ability to navigate and orient yourself. But in real life, the impact of microgravity on an astronaut’s brain both in space and after returning to earth has received very little scientific attention.
Until now, that is.
The Canadian Space Agency has announced funding for University of Calgary researcher Giuseppe Iaria’s Wayfinding project, which will look at the impact of weightlessness on the spatial orientation and navigation skills of astronauts.
“No one’s really looked at this before,” says Iaria, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Psychology, and principal investigator of the Wayfinding study. “There have been scientific studies investigating the impact of space travel on the bodies of astronauts, but nothing assessing the impact of spaceflight on brain function and spatial orientation.”
Study zeroes in on effects on spatial orientation and navigation
Specifically, Iaria will be looking at the effects of microgravity on the neural mechanisms responsible for spatial orientation and navigation skills. This is an unique opportunity in that Iaria will be studying subjects with healthy brain function who will be going to an environment where there will be very little vestibular information due to microgravity, and vestibular information is known to be very important for our sense of direction and balance. There is no other way to simulate this type of study on earth, so the results could also eventually benefit patients affected by neurological conditions and neural degeneration related to aging.
In the past, some, but not all astronauts have complained about having difficulty with spatial orientation when they return to Earth. Iaria’s task will be to pinpoint how the brain will re-establish the proper processing of vestibular information for the purpose of spatial orientation when gravity is reintroduced.
“No one knows how long-lasting the neurological effects of microgravity are,” says Iaria, who is also affiliated with the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. “We also don’t know what the effects are of going on a second trip into space and back. I think it’s a pretty big assumption that everything just goes back to normal. As a scientist I would like to test that.”
Brain scans of astronauts before and after space flight
Iaria and his team, including graduate student Ford Burles, who together conceived the proposal for funding, will now develop the details of how the experiment will work. They plan to take MRI scans of the brains of the participating astronauts while they complete a series of spatial tasks before they leave for space, and they will repeat this when they return. Iaria’s team will then analyze the data and try to draw some conclusions for use in treatment.
Testing is slated to begin in 2018, which means Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will be able to participate before and after his recently announced six-month mission to the International Space Station in 2018-19. Iaria will recruit a total of 12 astronauts with missions planned to the space station.
Ultimately, the research team hopes the results of this study will benefit more than just the space program.
“We know many people suffer from dysfunctions of the vestibular system,” says Iaria. “My hope at the end of this is to develop a tool that can mitigate the loss of useful vestibular information for both astronauts in space and patients on Earth.”
- The project was selected through a process involving the CSA and the International Space Life Sciences Working Group. The group is comprised of representatives from the CSA, NASA, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the German Aerospace Center, the French Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.
- Dr. Iaria and his research team will be performing neuroimaging studies on astronauts before they leave for the ISS and upon their return to Earth.
- The CSA’s investment in the study is $728,000 over five years.
- Canada’s participation in the International Space Station program provides Canadian scientists with access to an Earth-orbiting laboratory to conduct research for the benefit of Canadians.
- Budget 2016 provided up to $379 million over eight years for the Canadian Space Agency to extend Canada’s participation in the International Space Station to 2024.
- A New Canadian Scientific Experiment for the International Space Station
- Why Canada Conducts Science on the International Space Station
Reprinted with permission from Sean Myers, University of Calgary.