European Space Agency scientists have been investigating how the brain changes when it is thrown into weightlessness.

The brain is the most complicated organ in the human body and we still are not completely sure of how it works.

A campaign of flights which take a parabolic arc so that passengers experience weightlessness have studied how the brain works in space.

The participants volunteered to see how microgravity environments threw their brains off balance.

They were flown by a Zero-G aircraft, operated by the Novespace company based in France, which offers up to 90 periods of weightlessness, 20 seconds at a time.

The study found a direct – if varied – effect on brain function.

Volunteers whose brains were forced to work during weightless were better at multi-tasking and solving complicated equations.

Despite the benefits, the same volunteers found it more difficult to conduct typically physical activities that the brain organises, such as navigating new environments.

Image:The human brain seems to be able to function better in microgravity

"A better understanding of how blood flow impacts the brain as it surges through could help aging populations suffering from impaired cognition such as Alzheimer's disease, depression or dementia," said ESA.

The recordings of the subjects' brain activities confirmed a "significant increase" in their performance during the short-term microgravity exposures.

"The results are quite surprising, especially because they contradict the fact that weightlessness has a negative impact on the astronauts' cognitive performance," said Stefan Schneider from the German Sport University Cologne.

"Perhaps it is not weightlessness, but rather the long-term isolation during spaceflight," he suggested.

Perhaps at fault for some of the navigational difficulties was the seahorse-shaped part of the brain called the hippocampus – our inner GPS, which helps us perform spatial tasks.

"Repeated short bouts of weightlessness induce changes in the hippocampus," said Alexander Stahn, the lead scientist of the HypoCampus experiment.

"We want to find out to what extent and for how long that affects our spatial abilities," said Mr Stahn who works at the Centre for Space Medicine and Extreme Environments in Berlin.

IN SPACE - MAY 23: In this handout image provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, the International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth during Endeavour's final sortie on May 23, 2011 in Space. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli captured the first-ever images of an orbiter docked to the International Space Station from the viewpoint of a departing vessel as he returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule. (Photo by Paolo Nespoli - ESA/NASA via Getty Images)
Image:The experiment will be going to the ISS in 2019

The experiment made the subjects memorise and navigate through new environments shown to them in a VR headset while brain imaging measured how they were thinking.

Preliminary results showed a deficit in spatial memory, and established that the subjects' performance was not affected by their posture.

The HypoCampus experiment is going to fly to the International Space Station next year to identify how long-duration spaceflight affects astronauts' spatial cognition.

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