What happens to your brain when you have no sense of up? Researchers are scanning the brains of astronauts to track just how badly space messes with our ability to think.

Without a sense of up or down, astronauts experience perceptual illusions: switching feelings of orientation (like right-side-up or upside-down) without actually moving. They also have a harder time completing mental tasks or coordinating physical movements in microgravity than they do under normal gravity on Earth.

Earlier studies indicate change in volume within the brain during long-duration head-down tilted bed rest. Image credit: University of Michigan

The Spaceflight Effects on Neurocognitive Performance: Extent, Longevity, and Neural Bases (NeuroMapping) study tracks changes in brain structure and function, hoping to understand both what happens to astronauts in space and how long it takes to recover once they (and their brains) are back down the gravity well on Earth. The study started with the crew of International Space Station expedition 41/42 in September of 2014, and is intended to continue through the crew for expedition 49/50 in March 2017. The results of this experiment and others like it are critical if we want to send humans on deep space missions.


Because we can’t haul a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner into orbit, astronauts are being subjected to structural and functional MRI scans pre- and post-flight, helping researchers understand the changes. In addition, astronauts are undertaking a series of mental tasks and dexterity tests, seeing how their performance alters after prolonged exposure to microgravity.

Space: it looks fun, but it sure does a number on your body.


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.