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Ribbon Synaptic Plasticity in Gravity Sensors of Rats Flown on NeurolabPrevious spaceflight experiments (Space Life Sciences-1 and -2 (SLS-1 and SLS-2)) first demonstrated the extraordinary ability of gravity sensor hair cells to change the number, kind, and distribution of connections (synapses) they make to other cells while in weightlessness. The number of synapses in hair cells in one part of the inner ear (the utricle) was markedly elevated on flight day 13 (FD13) of SLS-2. Unanswered questions, however, were whether these increases in synapses occur rapidly and whether they remain stable in weightlessness. The answers have implications for long-duration human space travel. If gravity sensors can adapt quickly, crews may be able to move easily between different gravity levels, since the sensors will adapt rapidly to weightlessness on the spacecraft and then back to Earth's gravity when the mission ends. This ability to adapt is also important for recovery from balance disorders. To further our understanding of this adaptive potential (a property called neuronal synaptic plasticity), the present Neurolab research was undertaken. Our experiment examined whether: (a) increases in synapses would remain stable throughout the flight, (b) changes in the number of synapses were uniform across different portions of the gravity sensors (the utricle and saccule), and (c) synaptic changes were similar for the different types of hair cells (Type I and Type II). Utricular and saccular maculae (the gravity-sensing portions of the inner ear) were collected in flight from rats on FD2 and FD14. Samples were also collected from control rats on the ground. Tissues were prepared for ultrastructural study. Hair cells and their ribbon synapses were examined in a transmission electron microscope. Synapses were counted in all hair cells in 50 consecutive sections that crossed the striolar zone. Results indicate that utricular hair cell synapses initially increased significantly in number in both types of hair cells by FD2. Counts declined by FD14, but the mean number of synapses in utricular Type II cells remained significantly higher than in the ground control rats. For saccular samples, synaptic number in Type I and Type II cells declined on FD2, but returned to near-baseline values by FD14. These findings indicate that: (a) synaptic plasticity occurs rapidly in weightlessness, and (b) synaptic changes are not identical for the two types of hair cells or for the two maculae.
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Johnson Space Center
Document Type
Ross, Muriel D.
(NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA, United States)
Varelas, Joseph
(NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA, United States)
Date Acquired
September 7, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 2003
Publication Information
Publication: The Neurolab Spacelab Mission: Neuroscience Research in Space: Results from the STS-90, Neurolab Spacelab Mission
Subject Category
Aerospace Medicine
Funding Number(s)
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.
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