NASA, UPenn study how space affects astronaut’s brain

    NASA is learning about the effects longer space missions have on the human body with help from two unique subjects — identical twin astronauts, Scott and Mark Kelly.

    As part of that study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have developed a test that will be used to measure the effects of spaceflight on cognition.

    Each astronaut twin will take a series of cognitive tests before, during and after Scott Kelly’s yearlong mission to the International Space Station, which launches this month. Researchers will then compare Scott’s results to those of his brother Mark back here on earth.

    But Mathias Basner, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says his experiment is merely a jumping off point.

    “We’re not expecting to resolve all issues that surround cognitive performance in space flight,” said Basner. “But these data will give us a very good first idea on how cognitive performance could be affected by these longer duration missions.”

    While in weightlessness, astronauts have to deal with fatigue, inflammation around the eyes, and loss of bone density.

    Dr. Smith Johnston, operational flight surgeon at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, says the effects of long-term spaceflight on the human brain are considerable.

    “It has a high carbon dioxide environment. That high carbon dioxide environment has 5 to 10 times what we allow here in office buildings. And that can also give you what we call a space fog,” said Johnston.

    NASA is also doing tests on the twins DNA and gut bacteria. The data will be used to determine whether astronauts can go on longer missions, including to Mars.

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