Putting on a Thinking Cap for Brain Research on the Space Station

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger astronaut Bob Thirsk shares with readers his perspective as a test subject for International Space Station investigations.

I operated many different science payloads during my six-month International Space Station expedition in 2009. Some payloads only required me to power up and check out the hardware. Once activated, either automated software or the ground science team took control of payload operations and completed the rest of the experiment.

Neurospat, on the other hand, was a payload that fully engaged me in the science and data collection. A cognitive function experiment from Belgium and Hungary, it depended on astronauts to operate all aspects of the experiment from start to finish and even to serve as experiment test subjects. As a fundamental neuroscience research investigation, Neurospat may help researchers better understand the human brain and how it functions.

Frank De Winne, my European crewmate, and I were the very first subjects for Neurospat. When Frank served as a subject, I would help him set up the hardware. When I was a subject, Frank would help me in return. The biggest challenge of hardware setup was to place the cap on our crewmate’s head without laughing. It’s impossible to keep a straight face when your crewmate is wearing a scalp-hugging red or blue polka dot cap with an electrical pony-tail and wires dangling around the face. We looked like jesters! 

In reality, this odd-looking cap is a sophisticated electroencephalographic, or EEG, measurement device that incorporates 64 electrodes within the fabric to monitor our brain waves. A few other electrodes hanging from the cap are applied elsewhere on our skin to monitor eye movements, muscle activity and cardiac rhythm.

An important task of the assistant was to apply just the right amount of electro-conductive gel beneath each electrode using a syringe. The gel reduces the electrical impedance between the electrode and the subject’s scalp, improving the signal quality.

Bob Thirsk uses a syringe to inject a small amount of electro-conductive gel beneath each electrode of Frank De Winne’s EEG cap. Meanwhile, Frank initiates the Neurospat software for his upcoming experiment session. (NASA)

The pony-tail of the cap connects to the Multi-Electrode EEG Mapping Module—say that three times quickly!—which is a unit within a payload rack in ESA’s Columbus laboratory. This unit not only collected the data from the 64 electrodes, it also transmitted it to the ground. At the end of each Neurospat session, there was a lot of data that needed to be transmitted!

The fun began once the hardware was ready, the cables were connected and the data was flowing. For the next 70 minutes Frank and I repetitively performed four different experiment tasks while free-floating.

A computer screen, which we viewed through a tunnel adapter, presented specific tasks to us. Two of these tasks assessed our perception of visual orientation. Using buttons on a keypad, we evaluated the orientations of lines and estimated the locations of dots on the face of an imaginary clock face. This portion of the experiment was tedious. Frank and I joked to ourselves that while Neurospat claims to be a cognitive function experiment, this portion of the experiment was secretly a sleep induction investigation!

The other two Neurospat tasks were visuomotor “docking” tasks that kept us attentive and wide awake. The objectives were to alternately pilot a simulated Soyuz-like vehicle to a docking port on the space station, or to manually dock a Progress-like vehicle as if we were a cosmonaut working from a control station inside the station. This was similar to a video game requiring the use of a joystick. As we worked to complete each docking task quickly and accurately, the EEG cap monitored the functions of our cerebral cortex. I loved this portion of the experiment, since the tasks appealed to my competitive instincts.

After the Neurospat equipment has been set up, the free-floating test subject performs 70 minutes of cognitive function tasks. (NASA)

Researchers are already analyzing the data from Frank, myself, and all of the other astronauts who have participated in Neurospat to date. They compare our performance in space to our performance on the ground, both before and after flight. The scientists are particularly interested in our brain wave patterns, since these provide insight into our neural and cognitive processes while we performed the tasks.

Scientists hypothesize that long-duration spaceflight affects an astronaut’s sensorimotor system and cognitive abilities. Specifically, they think astronauts may have difficulty determining which way is up, and that our cognitive processes in space may be degraded by stress, fatigue and disrupted sleep.

Neurospat data collection is scheduled to continue on the station through September 2012. The research team expects to have enough astronaut subjects by the end of this year to complete their analysis and publish their results. I enjoyed Neurospat, as it was an experiment that fully engaged me in the science and data collection, putting my training and skills to the test. For an astronaut who is interested in payload operations, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Dr. Robert (Bob) Thirsk is an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. He holds degrees in mechanical engineering, an MBA, and is also a medical doctor. Dr. Thirsk has been involved in various Canadian Space Agency and NASA projects and is a veteran of two space flights: STS-78 in 1996 and Expedition 20-21 in 2009.

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