Pondering how the brain reacts to spaceflight? You are in luck, as NASA takes an in-depth look this month at the contemplative topic of brain research aboard the International Space Station.

Spaceflight has a unique effect on astronauts’ central nervous systems, and scientists are studying these effects now through experiments conducted in microgravity aboard the space station to reduce risks during future space missions to an asteroid, Mars and beyond.

Currently, a set of investigations designed for NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko as part of their One-Year Mission aboard the station are helping researchers gain insight on the cognitive and psychological effects of long-duration spaceflight. Among their research, scientists are looking at isolation, fatigue, altered light-dark cycles in the astronauts’ waking hours and microgravity. Researchers will get a plethora of human health data during this period, which is twice as long as a typical NASA mission.

Some of these studies include:

  • Individualized Real-Time Neurocognitive Assessment Toolkit for Space Flight Fatigue (Cognition) is a set of tests that measure how spaceflight-related physical changes, such as microgravity and lack of sleep, can affect the function of the brain. The 10 computerized tests cover a wide range of cognitive functions and provide real-time feedback.

  • Psychomotor Vigilance Self Test on the International Space Station (Reaction Self Test) is a five-minute evaluation test on a computer that allows crew members to track the effects of fatigue on their systems. Crew members sometimes experience fatigue from residual effects of sleep medications, shifts that change the sleep/wake cycle, and effects from spacewalks, all potentially degrading their performance and reaction time.

  • Spaceflight Effects on Neurocognitive Performance: Extent, Longevity, and Neural Bases (NeuroMapping) is a study of spaceflight changes to brain structure and function, including motor control and visualization. This will be measured using structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain after the crew members return to the ground.

  • Sleep-Wake Actigraphy and Light Exposure on ISS-12 (Sleep ISS-12) monitors light exposure and crew activity as it pertains to sleep quality. The researchers also will be looking at subjective evaluations of alertness. Crew members’ sleep is monitored by sleep logs completed within 15 minutes of awakening for seven consecutive days, every three weeks on orbit and through wearable electronics called Actiwatches that are worn continuously throughout the mission.

  • Behavioral Issues Associated with Isolation and Confinement: Review and Analysis of Astronaut Journals (Journals) analyzes diary entries for mood and psychological health. Study results provide information to help prepare for future missions to the space station, Mars and beyond.

  • Effects of Long-Duration Microgravity on Fine Motor Skills: One Year ISS Investigation (Fine Motor Skills) assesses hand-eye coordination. Crew members perform a series of interactive tasks on a touchscreen tablet. The investigation is the first fine motor skills study to measure long-term exposure to microgravity, different phases of microgravity adaptation, and recovery after returning to Earth.

  • Habitability Assessment of International Space Station (Habitability) collects observations on the living space of the crew on the space station. Design is important, since two crew members are living for a year aboard the station right now and this is their only living and work space. Researchers collect this information to help with future spacecraft design.

  • These and many other investigations aboard the space station are helping researchers understand changes in the brain off the Earth, which also can impact and improve neurological science on the Earth. Continue to follow along this month to learn more about the studies mentioned here and several others that help us think more clearly about the brain in space.

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