Scientists have suggested that life in relative isolation and routine environment can lead to a reduction in certain brain structures. In order to confirm or refute their assumptions, nine researchers spent 14 months in the cold of Antarctica and, according to the study, went out with a small loss in the total volume of the brain. In this case, is it possible that long-term loneliness impairs mental development of man?
As reported in the Medical journal New England, the reduction of the brain may also undermine the ability of forwarders to handle emotions and interact with other people due to the fact that the hippocampus is a key factor for the development of cognitive abilities. Such changes in the brain that was observed in the teams that have come from the Antarctic conditions are an additional confirmation of similar studies that have been conducted on rodents. Even then, it was assumed that long periods of social isolation can weaken the brain’s ability to create new neurons.
The main task of the conducted research was to study the effects of prolonged space travel on the activity of the human brain. In order to carry out the experiment, a group of scientists had to find a lab to conduct research that would meet the necessary requirements for isolation from the outside world. Research station Neumayer III, which is located at the South pole, could serve as the perfect place to conduct the study.
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Before heading to the polar station, the group of scientists conducted brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which creates a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create structural images of the brain. They also needed to measure levels of a special protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor brain (BDNF). This protein is responsible for the growth of new neurons and helps to support the livelihoods of adult cells. It is believed that without the protein BDNF hippocampus will not be able to create new neural pathways.
When the arrival of the expedition participants made regular measurements of the volume of the brain, it became clear that the members of the experiment lost more hippocampal volume and BDNF protein in 14 months at the South pole than the group of people that was at home. In addition, it was revealed that the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, which is responsible for neurogenesis, and records memories, dropped to an average of 4-10% for all time spent at a research station.
Several scientists who had identified the greatest loss of volume in the dentate gyrus, also showed the worst results in the test of spatial processing and selective attention, compared to their evaluations before the expedition.
Currently, scientists are studying possible ways to prevent such reduction of the brain. Among the most likely methods include special exercises, and the use of virtual reality to enhance sensory stimulation. Similar methods can be applied to prevent the loss of brain volume of those astronauts who at the beginning of 2030-ies will take a long journey to the Red Planet.