7.25.2005

This is your brain...on Space
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Zero G and I Feel Fine

Joseph Brean, of Canada's National Post (up in the Great White North) has written this really interesting piece on the effects of weightlessness on cognitive ability, which is reproduced here. It brings up some interesting questions:
1. what would happen to our cognitive ability over the long term in space
2. it seems as if performance on video games suffers
3. what does this portend for the erstwhile consumer space industry?

This is your brain in space

Joseph Brean
National Post


BORDEAUX, France - Kejia Zhu, a student at Imperial College London, is having some trouble playing his video games -- he keeps floating away from the computer.

To make matters worse, Melissa Daly, his partner in this pioneering science experiment on how brain activity changes in zero gravity, is incapacitated by nausea.

Here on the European Space Agency's experimental "weightlessness" airplane, the normal frustrations of young scientists -- stingy grants, self-important professors, poorly equipped labs -- seem distant. In their place are the otherworldly demands and weird sensations of working in zero gravity.

Despite the nausea, Ms. Daly has set her jaw and forced herself back to their workstation, where a new set of straps is holding Mr. Zhu firmly to the floor. He continues with his specially designed computer game, in which he tries to keep a moving target inside a little box while answering the brainteasers that flash on his screen, such as arithmetic questions or spatial reasoning tasks.

Any difference between his success rate on the ground and in the air will be good evidence that weightlessness has measurable effects on cognitive ability -- a finding with obvious relevance to the astronauts of the future.

Mr. Zhu and Ms. Daly are incredibly fortunate, both because of the million-dollar price tag of this week-long campaign of student experiments on which they won a coveted spot, but also because prolonged weightlessness is a remarkably recent and still mysterious phenomenon.

Just two generations ago, only NASA and the Soviets could do this sort of work. For a mere undergraduate, a study of how the human body reacts to weightlessness would have been nothing more than a daydream.

Indeed, it was not until the Second World War that any human -- in this case early fighter pilots -- enjoyed a sustained freefall and lived to tell about it. And it is less than half a century since American astronaut John Glenn announced from his first orbital space flight: "Zero G and I feel fine."

In the years since, scientists have made some basic discoveries, for instance that fish hatched on Earth swim with only minor difficulty in weightlessness, but fish born in weightlessness have no troubles at all.

From manned space flight, they learned that humans experience a loss of muscle mass, bone density, and some minor changes to heart and respiratory function. Astronauts also become taller by about an inch because their spines expand under the reduced stress of weightlessness.

But the greatest scientific insight into human weightlessness has been how far wrong the early scientists were in their predictions.

Astronauts' hearts did not wither away and stop beating, nor did they become disoriented and unable to work. The physician astronaut Joseph Kerwin slept on the Skylab space station wearing a "bunny cap" to analyze his dreams, but they were perfectly normal, and John Glenn's medical team fretted over the psychological effects he might experience, but did not. In the end, he found the whole experience "pleasant."

Today, data from dozens of human space flights have helped to narrow the big questions down, and reveal many more that have never before been asked. Indeed, the line-up of studies on last week's campaign in Bordeaux reveals a far more nuanced view of weightlessness studies.

No longer are scientists asking whether people can eat and digest in space. Now they are studying an edible bacteria that could be used to nourish astronauts on extra-long voyages, such as to Mars, and whether they can explain why some astronauts seem to lose their sense of taste.

They are no longer worried about astronauts losing their mind. Instead they are studying how single brain cells react to zero gravity, or whether weightlessness affects how people recognize faces. And the lone Canadian team is studying whether the increased blood flow to the head (which happens because the heart no longer has to pump against gravity) somehow compromises peripheral vision.

One team has even taken inspiration from the shower facilities on Skylab, which were cumbersome and had to be dried by hand, and designed a shower compartment inspired by the water-repellent surface of the lotus flower.

And every team, of course, took some time away from their research to do some of the best somersaults of their lives.

Back on the ground, the debriefing session reveals that this flight, during which the students experienced weightlessness 31 times for about 30 seconds each, was not an overwhelming success. Many pieces of apparatus failed, or did not behave as expected, and at least five experimenters were too sick to work. Some of the teams were left with only the memory of the flight; they collected no useful data.

Within minutes of this disappointing news, however, the workshop was buzzing with the sounds of drills and the tapping of keyboard keys. There is another flight tomorrow, with one more chance to get it right.

Tomorrow: From surgery in space to why women seem to be better



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