Intracranial Effects of Microgravity: A Prospective Longitudinal MRI Study

Radiology. 2020 Jun;295(3):640-648. doi: 10.1148/radiol.2020191413. Epub 2020 Apr 14.

Abstract

Background Astronauts on long-duration spaceflight missions may develop changes in ocular structure and function, which can persist for years after the return to normal gravity. Chronic exposure to elevated intracranial pressure during spaceflight is hypothesized to be a contributing factor, however, the etiologic causes remain unknown. Purpose To investigate the intracranial effects of microgravity by measuring combined changes in intracranial volumetric parameters, pituitary morphologic structure, and aqueductal cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) hydrodynamics relative to spaceflight and to establish a comprehensive model of recovery after return to Earth. Materials and Methods This prospective longitudinal MRI study enrolled astronauts with planned long-duration spaceflight. Measures were conducted before spaceflight followed by 1, 30, 90, 180, and 360 days after landing. Intracranial volumetry and aqueductal CSF hydrodynamics (CSF peak-to-peak velocity amplitude and aqueductal stroke volume) were quantified for each phase. Qualitative and quantitative changes in pre- to postflight (day 1) pituitary morphologic structure were determined. Statistical analysis included separate mixed-effects models per dependent variable with repeated observations over time. Results Eleven astronauts (mean age, 45 years ± 5 [standard deviation]; 10 men) showed increased mean volumes in the brain (28 mL; P < .001), white matter (26 mL; P < .001), mean lateral ventricles (2.2 mL; P < .001), and mean summated brain and CSF (33 mL; P < .001) at postflight day 1 with corresponding increases in mean aqueductal stroke volume (14.6 μL; P = .045) and mean CSF peak-to-peak velocity magnitude (2.2 cm/sec; P = .01). Summated mean brain and CSF volumes remained increased at 360 days after spaceflight (28 mL; P < .001). Qualitatively, six of 11 (55%) astronauts developed or showed exacerbated pituitary dome depression compared with baseline. Average midline pituitary height decreased from 5.9 to 5.3 mm (P < .001). Conclusion Long-duration spaceflight was associated with increased pituitary deformation, augmented aqueductal cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) hydrodynamics, and expansion of summated brain and CSF volumes. Summated brain and CSF volumetric expansion persisted up to 1 year into recovery, suggesting permanent alteration. © RSNA, 2020 Online supplemental material is available for this article. See also the editorial by Lev in this issue.