Spaceflight-induced changes in white matter hyperintensity burden in astronauts

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Abstract

Objective:

To assess the effect of weightlessness and the respective roles of CSF and vascular fluid on changes in white matter hyperintensity (WMH) burden in astronauts.

Methods:

We analyzed prespaceflight and postspaceflight brain MRI scans from 17 astronauts, 10 who flew a long-duration mission on the International Space Station (ISS) and 7 who flew a short-duration mission on the Space Shuttle. Automated analysis methods were used to determine preflight to postflight changes in periventricular and deep WMH, CSF, and brain tissue volumes in fluid-attenuated inversion recovery and high-resolution 3-dimensional T1-weighted imaging. Differences between cohorts and associations between individual measures were assessed. The short-term reversibility of the identified preflight to postflight changes was tested in a subcohort of 5 long-duration astronauts who had a second postflight MRI scan 1 month after the first postflight scan.

Results:

Significant preflight to postflight changes were measured only in the long-duration cohort and included only the periventricular WMH and ventricular CSF volumes. Changes in deep WMH and brain tissue volumes were not significant in either cohort. The increase in periventricular WMH volume was significantly associated with an increase in ventricular CSF volume (ρ = 0.63, p = 0.008). A partial reversal of these increases was observed in the long-duration subcohort with a 1-month follow-up scan.

Conclusions:

Long-duration exposure to microgravity is associated with an increase in periventricular WMH in astronauts. This increase was linked to an increase in ventricular CSF volume documented in ISS astronauts. There was no associated change in or abnormal levels of WMH volumes in deep white matter as reported in U-2 high-altitude pilots.

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