A publication in Science Advances

New knowledge on brain neuroplasticity after long-duration space flights

How does the brain adapt to weightlessness? A study, conducted by the University of Antwerp and in which researchers from the GIGA of ULiège participated, shows clear increases in brain tissue upon return but also a redistribution of fluids in and around the brain. This study has just been published in the journal Science Advances.


n international research project initiated by the University of Antwerp aims to study the changes in the brains of cosmonauts after space flight. Over the past seven years, MRI scans of the brains of Russian cosmonauts have been acquired before and after their missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Using a state-of-the-art imaging technique developed at the University of Antwerp, in close collaboration with scientists from the Universities of Leuven and Liège and the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, researchers have been able to observe for the first time how the brain physically adapts to weightlessness. The latest research, carried out by Steven Jillings under the supervision of Floris Wuyts and Ben Jeurissen from the University of Antwerp, is published this week in Science Advances. Steven Jillings is a PhD student affiliated to both the University of Antwerp and the University of Liège (GIGA Institute), under the supervision of Floris Wuyts, Ben Jeurissen and Angelique Van Ombergen from the University of Antwerp, and Athina Demertzi from ULiège.

In MRI scans acquired within the first ten days after return, the researchers found several clear increases in brain tissue in regions involved in motor function. This neuroplasticity was partially maintained seven months after return, suggesting a lasting learning effect. In addition, the researchers confirmed previous findings concerning the redistribution of fluids in and around the brain caused by the absence of gravity. This redistribution of fluids could play an important role in the development of visual acuity disorders, which have been documented in more than half of American astronauts. Fluid redistribution does not seem to be completely restored after seven months back on Earth, which is also the case for visual acuity impairment.

Knowing the changes that occur in the brain after space flight is particularly valuable for understanding how the brain adapts to extreme conditions, for understanding the mechanisms of pathologies and for ensuring the health of astronauts on future long-duration manned missions.

Since 2009, ULiège's GIGA Consciousness team has been successfully collaborating with Floris Wuyts' team at the University of Antwerp, bringing its expertise in brain plasticity and neuroimaging to complement the Antwerp team's expertise in vestibular system and gravity.


Macro- and microstructural changes in cosmonauts’ brains after long-duration spaceflight, S. Jillings, A. Van Ombergen, E. Tomilovskaya, A. Rumshiskaya, L. Litvinova, I. Nosikova, E. Pechenkova, I. Rukavishnikov, I. B. Kozlovskaya, O. Manko, S. Danilichev, S. Sunaert, P. M. Parizel, V. Sinitsyn, V. Petrovichev, S. Laureys, P. zu Eulenburg, J. Sijbers, F. L. Wuyts, B. Jeurissen, Macro- and microstructural changes in cosmonauts’ brains after long-duration spaceflight. Sci. Adv. 6, eaaz9488 (2020). DOI 10.1126/sciadv.aaz9488


Steven Jillings - email

Athina Demertzi, Research Associate, Fund for Scientific Research – FNRS, GIGA Consciousness, University of Liège (ULiège) - email

Imag : NASA

Publications list

Alterations of Functional Brain Connectivity After Long-Duration Spaceflight as Revealed by fMRI.
Pechenkova E, Nosikova I, Rumshiskaya A, Litvinova L, Rukavishnikov I, Mershina E, Sinitsyn V, Van Ombergen A, Jeurissen B, Jillings S, Laureys S, Sijbers J, Grishin A, Chernikova L, Naumov I, Kornilova L, Wuyts FL, Tomilovskaya E, Kozlovskaya I.
Front Physiol. 2019 Jul 4;10:761. 

Brain ventricular volume changes induced by long-duration spaceflight.
Van Ombergen A, Jillings S, Jeurissen B, Tomilovskaya E, Rumshiskaya A, Litvinova L, Nosikova I, Pechenkova E, Rukavishnikov I, Manko O, Danylichev S, Rühl RM, Kozlovskaya IB, Sunaert S, Parizel PM, Sinitsyn V, Laureys S, Sijbers J, Zu Eulenburg P, Wuyts FL.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 May 21;116(21):10531-10536. 
Brain Tissue-Volume Changes in Cosmonauts.
Van Ombergen A, Jillings S, Jeurissen B, Tomilovskaya E, Rühl RM, Rumshiskaya A, Nosikova I, Litvinova L, Annen J, Pechenkova EV, Kozlovskaya IB, Sunaert S, Parizel PM, Sinitsyn V, Laureys S, Sijbers J, Zu Eulenburg P, Wuyts FL.
N Engl J Med. 2018 Oct 25;379(17):1678-1680. 

Intrinsic functional connectivity reduces after first-time exposure to short-term gravitational alterations induced by parabolic flight.
Van Ombergen A, Wuyts FL, Jeurissen B, Sijbers J, Vanhevel F, Jillings S, Parizel PM, Sunaert S, Van de Heyning PH, Dousset V, Laureys S, Demertzi A.
Sci Rep. 2017 Jun 12;7(1):3061. 
The effect of spaceflight and microgravity on the human brain.
Van Ombergen A, Demertzi A, Tomilovskaya E, Jeurissen B, Sijbers J, Kozlovskaya IB, Parizel PM, Van de Heyning PH, Sunaert S, Laureys S, Wuyts FL.
J Neurol. 2017 Oct;264(Suppl 1):18-22. 

Altered functional brain connectivity in patients with visually induced dizziness.
Van Ombergen A, Heine L, Jillings S, Roberts RE, Jeurissen B, Van Rompaey V, Mucci V, Vanhecke S, Sijbers J, Vanhevel F, Sunaert S, Bahri MA, Parizel PM, Van de Heyning PH, Laureys S, Wuyts FL.
Neuroimage Clin. 2017 Feb 28;14:538-545. 
Spaceflight-induced neuroplasticity in humans as measured by MRI: what do we know so far?
Van Ombergen A, Laureys S, Sunaert S, Tomilovskaya E, Parizel PM, Wuyts FL.
NPJ Microgravity. 2017 Jan 10;3:2. 
Cortical reorganization in an astronaut's brain after long-duration spaceflight.
Demertzi A, Van Ombergen A, Tomilovskaya E, Jeurissen B, Pechenkova E, Di Perri C, Litvinova L, Amico E, Rumshiskaya A, Rukavishnikov I, Sijbers J, Sinitsyn V, Kozlovskaya IB, Sunaert S, Parizel PM, Van de Heyning PH, Laureys S, Wuyts FL.
Brain Struct Funct. 2016 Jun;221(5):2873-6. 

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