Investigation of the potential interplay of spaceflight conditions on the skin and brain

SCK•CEN Mentor

Radstake Eline,, +32 (0)14 33 27 27

Expert group


SCK•CEN Co-mentor

Verslegers Mieke , , +32 (0)14 33 28 67


In space, continuous exposure to microgravity and increased doses of ionizing radiation, create an environment which is unfamiliar for the Earth-bound human body. Furthermore, due to isolation, confinement, and high workload, the levels of psychological stress in space are elevated. This unique combination of spaceflight stressors can affect the astronaut’s health both at the short and long term.

The skin is the largest organ of the human body and it holds some vital functions for human health. However, during spaceflight, skin problems such as itch, dryness, rashes, and small cutaneous wounds are the most reported health problems. Furthermore, after long-term spaceflight, a 20% reduction in thickness of the epidermis and a loss of elasticity has been observed (Tronnier, Wiebusch, & Heinrich, 2008).  Of additional concern during spaceflight is the central nervous system. In fact, neurological symptoms such as space motion sickness, nausea and headaches are commonly experienced in astronauts during the first days in microgravity (Clément, 2011). , while persistent brain-volume changes and decrease gray matter (GM) volume are observed after long duration spaceflight (Van Ombergen et al., 2018). On top, long-term exposure to the space environment is reported to induce visual impairments, cognitive deficits, and premature brain aging (Clément, 2011; Cucinotta, Wang, & Huff, 2016; Zhang & Hargens, 2018).

On Earth, simulation studies mostly investigate the effect of single spaceflight stressors, which fail to grasp the complete picture of the hazardous space environment. Therefore, a more thorough investigation of the combined effect of microgravity, ionizing radiation, and psychological stress on the skin and the brain is warranted.


Clément, G. (2011). Fundamentals of Space Medicine (Second). New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

Cucinotta, F. A., Wang, H., & Huff, J. L. (2016). Risk of Acute or Late Central Nervous System Effects from Radiation Exposure, (May).

Tronnier, H., Wiebusch, M., & Heinrich, U. (2008). Change in skin physiological parameters in space - Report on and results of the first study on man. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 21(5), 283–292.

Van Ombergen, A., Jillings, S., Jeurissen, B., Tomilovskaya, E., Rühl, M., Rumshiskaya, A., … Wuyts, F. L. (2018). Brain Tissue – Volume Changes in Cosmonauts. The New England Journal of Medicine, 379(17), 2018–2020.

Zhang, L.-F., & Hargens, A. R. (2018). Spaceflight-Induced Intracranial Hypertension and Visual Impairment: Pathophysiology and Countermeasures. Physiological Reviews, 98(1), 59–87.


In this project we will use in vitro models to investigate the effects of combined spaceflight stressors on the skin and the brain. Human dermal fibroblasts and primary neurons (cortical and hippocampal) are cultured and exposed to stress hormones, simulated microgravity and ionizing radiation. We will investigate how this simulated spaceflight environment interferes with fibroblast function (e.g. migration), cell morphology, DNA integrity, extracellular matrix components, and cytoskeletal rearrangements. Furthermore, neuronal integrity including alteration in cell morphology and synaptic connectivity will be investigated.

Within the training period, the student will assist in experimental work consisting of:

  • Exposure of dermal fibroblasts and neurons to different spaceflight stressors, in isolation and combined.
  • Collecting data on fibroblast and neuronal morphology and function through an in vitro wound healing assay, immunohistochemistry, Western blotting, microscopy and morphometric analyses.
  • Writing a research report.

The minimum diploma level of the candidate needs to be

A2: Upper secondary school (+7th year BSO) , Professional bachelor , Academic bachelor

The candidate needs to have a background in