Scientists’ brains shrank a bit after an extended stay in Antarctica

The effects of isolation and a monotonous environment may be to blame

German polar research station

Snow and sky that surrounds a German polar research station called Neumayer III go on for kilometers. A crew of nine that stayed through the dark winter lost some brain volume, possibly due to the monotonous conditions.

Alexander Stahn/University of Pennsylvania, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Socially isolated and faced with a persistently white polar landscape, a long-term crew of an Antarctic research station saw a portion of their brains shrink during their stay, a small study finds.

“It’s very exciting to see the white desert at the beginning,” says physiologist Alexander Stahn, who began the research while at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin. “But then it’s always the same.”

The crew of eight scientists and researchers and a cook lived and worked at the German research station Neumayer III for 14 months. Although joined by other scientists during the summer, the crew alone endured the long darkness of the polar winter, when temperatures can plummet as low as –50° Celsius and evacuation is impossible. That social isolation and monotonous environment is the closest thing on Earth to what a space explorer on a long mission may experience, says Stahn, who is interested in researching what effect such travel would have on the brain.

Animal studies have revealed that similar conditions can harm the hippocampus, a brain area crucial for memory and navigation (SN: 11/6/18). For example, rats are better at learning when the animals are housed with companions or in an enriched environment than when alone or in a bare cage, Stahn says. But whether this is true for a person’s brain is unknown.

German Neumayer III research station
The German Neumayer III research station in Antarctica sits atop 16 hydraulic supports, which are adjusted to adapt to shifting snow cover.Alexander Stahn/University of Pennsylvania, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Stahn, now at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to capture views of the team members’ brains before their polar stay and after their return. On average, an area of the hippocampus in the crew’s brains shrank by 7 percent over the course of the expedition, compared with healthy people matched for age and gender who didn’t stay at the station, the researchers report online December 4 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But there are good reasons to believe that this change is reversible, Stahn says. While the hippocampus is highly vulnerable to stressors like isolation, he says, it is also very responsive to stimulation that comes from a life filled with social interactions and a variety of landscapes to explore (SN: 11/6/18).

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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