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The Effect of Spaceflight on the Ultrastructure of the CerebellumIn weightlessness, astronauts and cosmonauts may experience postural illusions as well as motion sickness symptoms known as the space adaptation syndrome. Upon return to Earth, they have irregularities in posture and balance. The adaptation to microgravity and subsequent re-adaptation to Earth occurs over several days. At the cellular level, a process called neuronal plasticity may mediate this adaptation. The term plasticity refers to the flexibility and modifiability in the architecture and functions of the nervous system. In fact, plastic changes are thought to underlie not just behavioral adaptation, but also the more generalized phenomena of learning and memory. The goal of this experiment was to identify some of the structural alterations that occur in the rat brain during the sensory and motor adaptation to microgravity. One brain region where plasticity has been studied extensively is the cerebellar cortex-a structure thought to be critical for motor control, coordination, the timing of movements, and, most relevant to the present experiment, motor learning. Also, there are direct as well as indirect connections between projections from the gravity-sensing otolith organs and several subregions of the cerebellum. We tested the hypothesis that alterations in the ultrastructural (the structure within the cell) architecture of rat cerebellar cortex occur during the early period of adaptation to microgravity, as the cerebellum adapts to the absence of the usual gravitational inputs. The results show ultrastructural evidence for neuronal plasticity in the central nervous system of adult rats after 24 hours of spaceflight. Qualitative studies conducted on tissue from the cerebellar cortex (specifically, the nodulus of the cerebellum) indicate that ultrastructural signs of plasticity are present in the cerebellar zones that receive input from the gravity-sensing organs in the inner ear (the otoliths). These changes are not observed in this region in cagematched ground control animals. The specific changes include the formation of lamellar bodies, profoundly enlarged Purkinje cell mitochondria, the presence of inter-neuronal cellular protrusions in the molecular layer, and signs of degeneration in the distal dendrites of the Purkinje cells. Since these morphologic signs are not apparent in the control animals, they are not likely to be due to caging or tissue processing effects. The particular nature of the structural alterations in the nodulus, most notably the formation of lamellar bodies and the presence of degeneration, further suggests that excitotoxicity (damaging overstimulation of neurons) may play a role in the short-term neural response to spaceflight. These findings suggest a structural basis for the neuronal and synaptic plasticity accompanying the central nervous system response to altered gravity and help identify the cellular bases underlying the vestibular abnormalities experienced by astronauts during periods of adaptation and re-adaptation to different gravitational forces. Also, since the short- and long-term changes in neural structure occurring during such periods of adaptation resemble the neuronal alterations that occur in some neurologic disorders such as stroke, these findings may offer guidance in the development of strategies for rehabilitation and treatment of such disorders.
Document ID
Document Type
Holstein, Gay R. (Mount Sinai School of Medicine New York, NY, United States)
Martinelli, Giorgio P. (Mount Sinai School of Medicine New York, NY, 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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IDRelationTitle20030068190Analytic PrimaryThe Neurolab Spacelab Mission: Neuroscience Research in Space: Results from the STS-90, Neurolab Spacelab Mission