In order to adapt functionally to changing environments, the brain is able to change its function and structure. This process is called neuroplasticity and is crucial for learning and adapting skills.

A new study examined functional brain connectivity in fighter pilots and found specific changes that may reveal the effects of space travel.

The study focused on the brains of F16 fighter pilots, whose ability to quickly interpret conflicting sensory data and adapt to altered gravity levels is comparable to that of astronauts. In the Belgian Air Force, 10 jet fighter pilots were recruited in addition to a control group of 10 non-pilots. In brain regions involved in processing sensorimotor information, MRI scans of pilots with more flying experience revealed distinctive brain connectivity patterns.

Compared to non-pilots, they also showed changes in brain connectivity. The study will increase our knowledge of how space travel affects the brain and could help develop more effective training regimens for astronauts and pilots.

Prof Floris Wuyts of the University of Antwerp, senior author of the study, said: “Fighter pilots have some interesting similarities to astronauts, such as exposure to altered g-levels, and the need to interpret visual information and information derived from head movements and acceleration (vestibular information). By establishing the specific brain connectivity characteristics of fighter pilots, we can can gain more insight into the condition of astronauts after spaceflight.”

Interestingly, the researchers found differences in brain connectivity between experienced and less experienced pilots, pointing to the possibility that changes occur in the brain as flight time increases. These variations meant there was less connectivity in some brain areas that process sensory information, which may be a sign that the brain has adapted to handle the challenging conditions of flight.

In addition, experienced pilots showed improved connectivity in frontal brain regions likely related to the cognitive demands of piloting a complex jet. The researchers found that the vestibular and visual processing areas of pilots’ brains were more interconnected than those of non-pilots. This may reflect the demands placed on pilots to manage the simultaneous processing of numerous, sometimes conflicting, visual and vestibular stimuli and the need to prioritize the most critical stimuli, such as cockpit instrument reading.

Dr. Wilhelmina Radstake, the first author of the study who conducted a master’s thesis on the subject in Prof. Wuyt’s lab, said: “By demonstrating that vestibular and visual information is processed differently in pilots than in non-pilots, we can recommend pilots as a suitable research group to better understand the brain’s adaptations to unusual gravity environments, such as during spaceflight.”

Magazine reference:

  1. Wilhelmina Radstake et al. Neuroplasticity in F16 fighter jet pilots. Limits in physiology. DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2023.1082166