Changes to Fighter Pilot Brains Could Help Us Prepare for Space

The pilot of a Greek F-16 Viper fighter jet salutes before takeoff.

The pilot of a Greek F-16 Viper fighter jet salutes before takeoff.
photo: Thanassis Stavrakis (AP)

A new study examines whether F16 fighter pilots show brain connectivity changes that would be expected in astronauts based on similar exposure to changes in G-forces. The study found that the pilots showed important changes in brain connectivity and they could act as suitable test subjects to learn more about space travel.

One cannot explore the deep mysteries of space without being transformed by it. That’s the message behind a new study in Boundaries in Physiology.

The study examined the brains of F16 fighter pilots, which have a lot in common with those of F16s astronauts in terms of adapting to altered gravity levels and rapid processing of conflicting sensory information. MRI scans showed that pilots with more flight experience showed specific brain connectivity patterns in areas related to processing sensorimotor information. They also showed differences in brain connectivity compared to non-pilots. The study will help us understand the effects of space flight on the brain and may help provide better training programs for pilots or astronauts.

Spaceships: a rollercoaster ride for the brain

Launching into space places high demands on body and mind. These include altered gravity levels, from G-forces during launch to the low-gravity environment in space. Other problems include the rapid interpretation of sometimes conflicting sensory and visual stimuli when driving a complex vehicle at extreme speeds.

A pilot study

Given that astronauts are a rare commodity, the researchers behind the current study hypothesized that examining the brains of people in a somewhat similar profession could provide the answers they need. “Fighter pilots share some interesting similarities with astronauts, such as head movements and acceleration (vestibular information),” said Prof. Floris Wuyts from the University of Antwerp, senior author of the study. “By identifying the specific characteristics of fighter pilots’ brain connectivity, we can gain more insight into astronauts’ post-spaceflight state.”

To study this, the researchers recruited 10 Belgian Air Force fighter jet pilots along with a control group of 10 non-pilots and performed MRI scans of their brains to create the first-ever study of functional brain connectivity in fighter pilots.

Adaptation to extreme requirements

Interestingly, the researchers found differences in brain connectivity between experienced and less experienced pilots, suggesting that brain changes occur with an increased number of flight hours. These differences included less connectivity in certain areas of the brain processing sensorimotor information that may indicate the brain is adapting to the extreme conditions encountered during flight.

Experienced pilots also demonstrated improved connectivity in frontal areas of the brain that are likely to be involved in the cognitive demands to fly a complicated jet. Comparing pilots and non-pilots, the researchers found that areas of the brain that process vestibular and visual information were more connected in pilots. This may reflect the demands on pilots to cope with the simultaneous processing of multiple and occasionally conflicting visual and vestibular stimuli and to identify the most important stimuli, such as e.g. B. to prioritize reading cockpit instruments.

“By showing that vestibular and visual information is processed differently in pilots than in non-pilots, we can suggest that pilots are an appropriate study group to gain more insight into the brain’s adaptations to unusual gravitational environments, such as during space flightsaid Dr. Wilhelmina Radstake, first author of the study, who wrote a master’s thesis on this topic in Prof. Wuyt’s laboratory.

More: Astronauts can experience a decade of bone loss during months in space, new research suggests Changes to Fighter Pilot Brains Could Help Us Prepare for Space

Zack Zwiezen

Zack Zwiezen is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Zack Zwiezen joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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