Scientists’ brains shrank after a long stay in Antarctica

The isolated and unchanging polar landscape may have played a role

A person surveys the endless snow and sky surrounding Neumayer III, a German research station in Antarctica. Scientists found that the brains of crew members staying there shrank a bit, possibly due to an unchanging environment.

Alexander Stahn/University of Pennsylvania, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin

A portion of the brains of people living at an Antarctic research station shrank during a long stay, a small study finds. Social isolation and the unchanging white landscape may be to blame.

“It’s very exciting to see the white desert at the beginning,” says Alexander Stahn. A physiologist, he began the research while working in Berlin, Germany. “But then it’s always the same.”

A crew of eight scientists 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 polar winter. Temperatures can plummet as low as –50° Celsius (–58° Fahrenheit). Such harsh conditions make it impossible for people to leave. 

This creates a lot of isolation. That and the static environment create the closest thing on Earth to what a space explorer might experience, says Stahn. He now works at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Stahn wants to understand how long-term travel in space might affect the brain.

German Neumayer III research station
The German Neumayer III research station in Antarctica has adjustable supports that help it adapt to shifting snow cover.  Alexander Stahn/University of Pennsylvania, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Animal studies suggest similar conditions can harm the hippocampus (Hip-oh-KAMP-us). This brain area plays a big role in memory and navigation. For example, rats housed alone or in bare cages are worse at learning than rats housed with other rats or in enhanced cages, Stahn says. But whether this is true for people is unknown.

Stahn and his colleagues imaged each team member’s brain before and after their polar stay. Over that stay, part of the hippocampus in the crew’s brains shrunk by an average of 7 percent. That’s compared to healthy people who didn’t live at the station. Stahn’s team reported its findings online December 4 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Stahn says there are good reasons to think these changes can be reversed. Stress, such as isolation, can affect the hippocampus. But the brain area also responds to stimulation. That might include interacting with new people and exploring new sites.

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

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