Distributed February 20, 2001
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Preparing for long space missions

Researchers to develop brain monitoring system for Mars exploration

Brown researchers received a three-year, $638,000 grant from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute to develop a system to monitor astronauts’ cognitive abilities, decision-making and language comprehension during prolonged space missions.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Brown University recently received a three-year, $638,000 grant to develop a system to monitor the cognitive abilities of astronauts during a proposed NASA manned mission to Mars in 2020.

Prolonged exposure to cosmic rays may damage regions of the brain responsible for cognition, decision-making and language comprehension, a significant danger when the trip to Mars is expected to take six months, said Philip Lieberman, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and the study’s lead researcher.

A computer system that could remotely monitor the cognitive functioning of astronauts by using acoustic measures of their speech would allow NASA to respond to changes during a mission. The current available technology for speech analysis is an interactive testing system that cannot be used for online monitoring, said Lieberman.

The grant is one of 86 awarded by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (www.nsbri.org), a consortium of leading research institutions working toward the goal of reducing health concerns related to space missions.

To develop the new technology, researchers will study two groups of individuals with neural deficits similar to those that may occur from prolonged exposure to cosmic rays. Researchers will track 30 climbers on Mount Everest, where the thinning atmosphere gradually effects neural processes, and, separately, 150 people with Parkinson’s Disease, who are experiencing more profound neural damage.

On Mount Everest, researchers will monitor climbers throughout their ascent using two-way radios. At various altitudes, climbers will be asked to complete cognitive and emotional tests, and their voices will be recorded through radio communication with base camp. The elements of extreme stress and danger, which are inherent to the climb, also provide a valuable similarity to the space mission. The first climbing expedition and data collection is scheduled for the end of March.

At Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, researchers will give Parkinson’s patients a similar battery of cognitive and emotional tests and tape record their responses.

The research project is based on new insights into how brains work. The human brain does not have language or thinking centers, said Lieberman. Complex acts such as understanding the meaning of a sentence, reaching a decision or planning ahead involve activity in many parts of the brain, including the basal ganglia.

Applications for technology that could remotely monitor an individual’s cognitive ability are not limited to space flight. Slow leaks of carbon monoxide in airplanes, which do not typically set off alarms intended for sudden large leaks, may go undetected and lead to crashes, Lieberman said. A system that would automatically monitor the pilot’s conversation and detect the gradual effects of the poisoning may prevent loss of life. Such technology could also impact the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease, in which day-to-day monitoring of patients could be performed by telephone.

Lieberman is collaborating with John Mertus, a computer systems designer in cognitive and linguistic sciences; Joseph Friedman, a clinical professor of neuroscience at the Brown Medical School; and Geoffry Tabin, associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Vermont. Tabin is a world-class mountain climber whose expertise includes extreme altitude physiology.