NASA funded researchers will examine how microgravity environment affects brain of astronauts aboard ISS (International Space Station). According to researchers, astronauts in space face perpetual illusions and find difficulty in maintaining mental balance. Since, astronaut’s mental stability is necessary to explore space, NASA has taken the issue very seriously and will fund the study which will examine changes in structure and functioning of brain and will also observe that how long it takes to recover after returning from space. The study might unveil some new ways to cope up with such situations.
For the study, researchers will use several techniques to observe changes in the brain including behavioral assessments and brain imaging. Astronauts who will participate in the study will go through several tests like completing timed obstacle courses, tests of their spatial memory, ability to mentally picture and manipulate a three-dimensional shape, etc, before and after the flight.
Spatial memory test is conducted to check mental ability for storing and manipulating information about the environment. Astronauts will go through spatial memory test on the ISS (International Space Station) too, which will be combined with sensory-motor tests and computerized exercise. These exercises require multitasking as astronauts going through these tests will have to move and think simultaneously.
Astronauts will be examined several times including before and after the flight, mid-way through and after spending time period of six months in space. While MRI ( Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of their brain will be done twice — before and after the flight.
Lead researcher Rachael D Seidler, director of the University of Michigan’s Neuromotor Behaviour Laboratory said that microgravity has a huge impact on the brain and they want to examine how microgravity affects brain whether it changes shape and size of brain during flight. Seidler further added that to observe physical changes in the brain both are necessary — behavioral assessment and brain imaging before and after the flight.
Seidler further explained that our balance system tells us whenever we move our head relative to gravity of Earth. While, in the absence of gravity like in Mars, our balance system won’t work and our brain will not get notified of our head movement since gravity reference is not present in the space. This might have some severe consequences like perceptual illusions, as well as difficulty coordinating movement of the eyes and head.
While astronauts in space witness varying gravity like when they leave from Earth and enter in space to a microgravity environment and then from space they reach to Mars to a high gravity environment. Seidler pointed out that such situations affect mental condition of astronauts.
While an astronaut aboard ISS or spacecraft should be able to react accurately in crunch situations like using tools and driving a rover, and they must be capable of escape in a landing emergency, but without mental stability no such things are possible.Thus, a detailed study is needed and the idea influenced the American Space Agency NASA which funded the research.