A new study, which looks into volunteers' mental function taking part in a continuing microgravity simulation, raises more questions than answers about impaired cognition and emotional function in long-term space voyages.
Sending humans to outer space requires immense psychological stamina from astronauts, but finding one that exhibits such quality is in itself challenging.
Astronauts in the International Space Station often endure extreme isolation during their dangerous six-month voyage in a small spacecraft, which leaves them with severe psychological and emotional strain.
According to the new study published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, microgravity - the feeling of weightlessness the all astronauts experience - may intensify some of that strain by skewing astronauts' perception of their fellow travelers' emotional state.
How Was the Study Conducted?
Mathias Basner, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, studied the effects of simulated microgravity on the volunteers' cognitive and emotional function.
He and his team attempted to duplicate the physical alterations that happen to the brain in space.
The study reveals that bodily fluids shift toward the head without gravity pulling them towards the ground.
This results in astronauts, who returned to Earth after an extended stay on the space station, often appear bloated.
However, this fluid shift causes structural changes to the astronauts' brains, as suggested by their brain scans.
"It has been shown that the brain is actually pushed to the top of the skull and compress[ed] there," said Basner.
Researchers had signed up 24 volunteers to spend 60 days in a bed, inactive, and with their heads tilted at a six-degree angle downward.
The team devised a much more comprehensive set of tests to study the range of mental functions of the volunteers, including sensory-motor speed, abstract reasoning, memory, attention, reaction time, risk-taking behavior, executive function flexibility, and emotional recognition.
What did the researchers found?
According to a CBC report, tests revealed that the volunteers exhibited an immediate slowing in their ability to perform cognitive tasks, and that slowness remained for the duration of the study.
"The one exception was the emotion recognition test," he said, which got significantly worse.
The team presented photographs of professional actors portraying different emotions - happy, sad, angry, fearful, or neutral - with varying intensities to the volunteers.
During the later stages in the study, when volunteers had spent more time in the simulated microgravity condition, their responses in the emotion recognition tests became slower.
Researchers conclude that skewed emotional perception could create interpersonal stresses that could impair the astronaut team's efficiency.
"If we have someone in our workplace that we don't like, at least we can go home at night - we don't have to deal with that person," Mathias Basner said.
Astronauts on a long-term mission to Mars clearly cannot experience the feeling at this time.
Neither can they seek help promptly from Earth's mission support staff due to the significant communication delay caused by distance.
"If there's conflict among crew members, that really could affect the way they operate and actually endanger mission success in the long run," Basner added.
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Written by Lee Mercado