Door to door, the first trip to Mars will be an approximately seven-month journey. Once astronauts lift off from Earth, the supplies onboard their spacecraft must last: food, water, medicine, and medicine, to name just a few essentials. But deep space exploration will challenge astronaut minds and bodies with chronic stress, depression, interpersonal conflict, and performance deterioration.
Performance and mood are closely intertwined with brain activity and many potential health challenges that may affect astronauts' performance during the mission. They'll face a loss of circadian rhythm without regular daylight, isolation in small spaces, and a lack of social activities. These are all risks that may lead to an unhealthy mental state.
Dr. Seung-Schik Yoo, Director of Neuromodulation and Tissue Engineering Laboratory at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital, is exploring new ways of changing the brain functions without medication. This project, supported by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health , could be deployed to improve astronaut performance on long-duration missions.
Helping Astronauts Feel Mentally Strong in Space
Two common, non-invasive brain stimulation treatments can help reduce depression in an individual. Transcranial magnetic stimulation delivers a magnetic pulse to a targeted area, resulting in a positive mood improvement after repetitive treatments. Transcranial direct current stimulation delivers a constant electrical current to a designated region, with anticipated results that will help more than just depression. It has shown to help with symptoms of anxiety, pain, and even functional recovery after a stroke.
Both modalities seem to decrease symptoms of depression and make an overall positive impact. However, such modalities cannot reach deep areas of the brain. There is great potential for improving the mental state of humans if these areas could be reached during treatment. The goal of Dr. Yoo’s project is to create a new brain stimulation treatment with excellent spatial selectivity and the ability to influence those deep brain areas.
Dr. Yoo and his team developed a wearable device that utilizes ultrasound techniques to alter the excitability of specific brain tissue. It works alongside a computer-based algorithm that can predict and estimate the intensity and the location of acoustic focus in the brain. One person can operate the device, which is more compact and transportable than previous options.
Although this project aims to enhance astronauts' performance, testing its effectiveness and safety here on Earth is also important.
"We still have a long way to go before we can deploy the technique to stimulate the astronauts’ brain and enhance their performance. If the method is proven safe and effective, I am personally interested in improving and enhancing the mood, sleep, and attention level of the astronauts,” said Dr. Seung-Schik Yoo.