After Staying In Antarctica, Scientists' Brains Shrank A Bit

Because it’s mostly isolated and unforgiving, Antarctica can be quite hard to study from afar. As a result, scientists usually set up laboratories and camps on the actual frozen tundra, often spending months on the region to conduct studies, observations and experiments.

And now, a new study finds that recently, a long-term crew on an Antarctic station saw a portion of their brains shrink while staying on the icy desert.

Antarctic Brain Shrinking

The crew, which had been working at the German research station Neumayer III for the last 14 months, is certainly an enduring bunch, braving the social isolation and the persistently white polar landscape, all for the name of science. In fact, they were even brave enough to endure the long darkness of the polar winter, when evacuation becomes impossible and the temperature falls to a deadly –50°Celsius .

“It’s very exciting to see the white desert at the beginning. But then it’s always the same,” Alexander Stahn, physiologist, who began the research while at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, said. Additionally, Stahn is also highly interested in researching the effects of such conditions on the brain, and whether the shrinking had some long-term effects for the people who experienced it. In fact, Stahn also said that the social isolation and mostly monotonous environment that one can get in Antarctica is the closest that a human on Earth can experience what it’s like.

According to Stahn, he and his colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to capture views of the brains of the team members both before and after their long-term stay at the cold region. Based on these data, the findings revealed that on average, the hippocampus (which is a crucial brain area responsible for navigation and memory) shrank by about 7 percent. The findings were compared to the brains of healthy people with matching ages and gender that didn’t stay at Antarctica, per the report published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Per Stahn, this change is reversible. However, it can be stopped by living a life filled with social interactions because the hippocampus is responsive to stimulation.

antarctica-3883212_960_720 A station in the Antarctica. Photos by Pixabay (CC0)