U of C professor develops real-time brain scanners for Mars project


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Researchers dressed in black, bulky spacesuits and large white helmets lumbered across a barren, rocky landscape that crumbled beneath their feet.

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The Canadian research team was dressed for Mars, but they were actually in the HI-SEAS, or Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation — a Mars-like locale that scientists use to run cosmological experiments.

After an afternoon exploring nearby lava tubes, the team — from universities in Calgary, Victoria and Kelowna — returned to the HI-SEAS Habitat, a white dome that looks like an oversized golf ball in an abandoned quarry.

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Inside their temporary home, they put on thin headbands that translated the teams’ brain activity to scores in perception, learning, decision-making, memory and attention.

The group was testing electroencephalography (EEG) headbands that can read brainwaves. They’re interested in seeing if these headbands can be used to measure an astronaut’s cognitive ability during a mission and hope the technology can be incorporated with future NASA projects.

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The long hours of labouring in space can take a heavy toll on future astronauts and, after a certain level of exhaustion, mental acuity and decision-making reach a tipping point and become severely compromised — putting the mission, as well as their lives, at stake.

The slightest slip-up on a mission to Mars could have dire consequences — using these headbands could prove an important safety protocol. Findings from their research confirm that the headbands are quite effective at detecting waning cognitive abilities.

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“It was a proof of concept to determine if we could use a mobile technology in order to assess brain activity,” said Kent Hecker, a University of Calgary professor who returned from the mission last week.

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“Basically, that consists of a commercially available neural headband called MUSE that links to an iPad or iPhone.”

To test their mental acuity, the researchers wore the headbands while playing games on an iPad. An app program synchronized their brainwaves with the game and gave scores for various cognitive fatigue metrics. The team did the test, which lasted about fifteen minutes, in the morning, afternoon and evening to measure mental fatigue during their long days acting as astronauts.

The simulated mission began Dec. 2, when the researchers were sealed in the air-locked habitat. The five-person research crew and mission commander would wake at daybreak to a 12- to 16-hour day — if daybreak occurred.

A researcher at the HI-SEAS Habitat on Mauna Loa, Hawaii.
A researcher at the HI-SEAS Habitat on Mauna Loa, Hawaii.

Since the Mars habitat is solar powered, the research team occasionally had to go without light and heating. Cooking meals was also a challenge.

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“Because all the food is freeze dried and dehydrated, we actually had to prep our breakfast and that usually takes a long time, and there was nothing fresh,” added Hecker.

After breakfast, the team would don cumbersome space suits and explore the faux-Martian terrain, emulating geological surveys that astronauts would do.

Freeze-dried lunch was followed with similar activities, and in the evenings the research team analyzed data and reported on the day’s findings, including a blog written by Olav Krigolson, a neuroscientist from the University of Victoria.

The Mars simulation included a solar flare drill that required the team to take shelter in a lava tube.

“We did a bit of exploring but, by luck, we had brought the chocolate oatmeal bars that we had made the day before, and one of our iPads had a copy of Star Wars on it, so there we were . . . our research crew, in a lava tube cave, watching Star Wars, in space suits,” Krigolson wrote on Day 4 of their mission. “Now that, I believe, is a fairly unique experience.”

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After spending eight days in the Mars habitat and analyzing their data, Krigolson described the experiment as a “complete success.”

Kent Hecker tests the MUSE headband with a graduate student in the HI-SEAS Habitat.
Kent Hecker tests the MUSE headband with a graduate student in the HI-SEAS Habitat. Photo by Supplied photo

Their data showed clear decreases in brain performance and clear increases in cognitive fatigue as the day wore on.

“The stress and pace of life in the Hab took its toll each day and we were experiencing acute cognitive fatigue by the time we went to bed,” wrote Krigolson. “For instance, last night while we were trying to play cards during our down time before bed, all of us made numerous dumb mistakes that were the tells of cognitive fatigue.”

Additionally, their experiments point to several other potential uses for the headbands.

On Krigolson’s blog, he notes they could be used to test if surgeons are prepared to perform surgery, if pilots are fit to fly, or even if businessmen should be making important decisions. For use on Mars, the next steps would be to incorporate the use of the headbands in longer simulations.

“Just to be able to experience what it could be like to potentially be in space was incredible,” said Hecker. “It’s a dream come true to be able to participate in a research project like this.”

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