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Mars missions could leave astronauts with severe psychological damage — new study

todayMarch 20, 2021 5

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Human space missions to Mars are the next great leap in space exploration, with NASA targeting the 2030s as a reasonable time frame for taking the first humans there. But boarding on a journey to Mars is not like catching a flight to New York. Space is an extremely hostile environment for human life – from the lack of gravity and harmful radiation to isolation and the absence of night and day.

Deep space missions to Mars will be much more physically and mentally demanding than the journeys we’ve made so far during 60 years of human space exploration. A flight to Mars and back will last approximately 14 months, while the actual exploration mission will last at least three years. Sustained high levels of cognitive performance and effective teamwork are prerequisites for the safe and successful outcome of these missions.

But a new study, published in Frontiers of Physiology, has discovered that the lack of gravity on such missions could have a negative impact on astronauts’ cognitive skills and emotional understanding.

Since the first space missions, it has been clear that exposure to “microgravity” (weightlessness) leads to dramatic changes in the human body. This includes alterations in the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and neural systems. On Earth, we detect gravity with the help of our vision and various organs, including those inside the inner ear. When our head is upright, small stones in the ears – the vestibular otoliths – are balanced perfectly on a viscous fluid. But when we move the head, gravity makes the fluid move and this triggers a signal to the brain that our head has changed position. In spaceflight, this process no longer works.

Spaceflight can even adversely alter the anatomy of astronauts’ brains. Structural brain changes have been observed in astronauts after returning from the International Space Station (ISS). These include the brain physically moving upwards inside the skull and reduced connectivity between areas on the layer of the brain, the cortex, and those inside.

How these changes affect behavior is not yet fully understood, but scientists are making progress. We know that astronauts can suffer from disorientation, perceptual illusions, balance disorders, and motion sickness. But such findings are often based on small samples.

Simulating microgravity

The new NASA-supported study investigated the effects of microgravity on cognitive performance. But rather than sending their 24 study participants to space, they sent them to bed. That’s because the impact of a certain type of bed rest is analogous to the effects of microgravity – we use it a lot in research. When we are upright, our body and vestibular otoliths are in the same direction as gravity, while when we are lying down they are orthogonal (at right angles).

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