Scientists study the effects of space travel on mental health

The astronauts ventured into space for 61 years to unleash the human potential for exploration.

But the floating freedom afforded by zero gravity also presents a number of limitations when it comes to the human body and mind.

Short space trips since the first Mercury and Apollo missions have turned into stays of six months or more aboard the International Space Station. The floating lab served as the perfect backdrop for scientists trying to figure out what really happens to every aspect of the human body in the space environment – radiation, lack of gravity and all.

Many of these effects have been well documented over time, particularly during the 2019 twin study which compared the changes Scott Kelly went through after nearly a year in space with those of his twin brother, Mark, back on Earth.

Christopher Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine has partnered with NASA on this research, and he and Scott Kelly spoke about these findings at 2022 conference on life itselfa health and wellness event presented in partnership with CNN.

“What was the thing you missed the most on Earth when you were away for a year?” Mason asked Kelly.

“The weather, of course. Rain, sun, wind,” Kelly said. “And then I miss people… who are important to you, you know, your family, your friends.”

As NASA plans to return humans to the Moon and possibly land on Mars through the Artemis program, there is heightened interest in understanding what effects might be caused by long-duration deep space travel.

A big question some scientists have asked is whether humans are mentally and emotionally prepared for such a big leap. In short: how are we going to handle this?


A study 2021 the participants lived for nearly two months in simulated weightlessness by resting in a special bed with their heads tilted at a 6-degree angle. The tilt creates a forward movement of bodily fluids that astronauts experience in the absence of gravity.

Participants were regularly asked to take cognitive tests designed for astronauts, covering memory, risk-taking, emotion recognition and spatial orientation.

The researchers wanted to test whether experiencing artificial gravity for 30 minutes a day, either all at once or in five-minute bouts, could prevent negative effects. While study participants experienced initial cognitive decline during their tests, this evened out and did not persist over the 60 days.

But the speed at which they recognized emotions deteriorated overall. When tested, they were more likely to see facial expressions as angry rather than happy or neutral.

“Astronauts on long space missions, much like our research participants, will spend long periods of time in microgravity, confined to a small space with a few other astronauts,” said study author Mathias Basner, a professor at the Department of Psychiatry from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman. Medicine School.

“Astronauts’ ability to correctly ‘read’ the emotional expressions of others will be of paramount importance to effective teamwork and mission success. Our results suggest that their ability to do so may be impaired over time.

In the study, it was unclear whether this impairment was due to the simulated weightlessness or the confinement and isolation the participants experienced for 60 days.

A separate study from 2021, published in Acta Astronauticshas developed a mental health checklist based on stressors faced by astronauts – which are also shared by those who spend months at research stations in Antarctica.

These two extreme environments – space and the edge of the world – create a lack of privacy, altered cycles of light and dark, confinement, isolation, monotony and prolonged separation from family and friends.

University of Houston psychology professor Candice Alfano and her team designed the checklist as a self-reporting method to track these mental health changes. The biggest change reported by people at the two Antarctic stations was a drop in positive emotions from the start to the end of their nine-month stay with no “rebound” effect even as they prepared to return home.

Participants also used fewer effective strategies to stimulate positive emotions.

“Interventions and countermeasures aimed at reinforcing positive emotions may therefore be key to reducing psychological risk in extreme settings,” Alfano said.


Helping astronauts maintain their mental acuity and well-being when venturing away from home is a key goal of NASA Human Research Program. In the past, the program has developed countermeasures to help astronauts combat muscle and bone loss, such as daily workouts on the space station.

Researchers are actively exploring the idea of ​​how meaningful work can bring mission crews together. When astronauts work as a team, whether on the space station or in a Mars simulation environment on Earth, their collaboration has a common goal.

And after work is done, they can spend time together watching movies or enjoying recreational activities to combat feelings of isolation.

However, a mission to Mars, which could take months or years depending on the design of the spacecraft, could lead to feelings of monotony and confinement. And frequent contact with Mission Control and their loved ones on Earth will be increasingly disrupted the farther they get from Earth.

“We need to make sure that we have individualized kinds of protocols and things to do for the crew,” Alexandra Whitmire, elemental scientist at the Human Research Program, said in a 2021 interview with CNN. “It’s really important for us to understand the people who will be on this mission.”

While some crew members may derive excitement and fulfillment from working on science experiments, others may need to tinker with other tasks. Previous research has already identified key traits that may be needed in deep space explorerssuch as autonomy and problem solving.

A startling discovery on the space station is how food — and growing crops — helps boost crew morale while maintaining a very important tangible connection to home.

It’s no surprise that space food must be a safe and stable supply of nutrients and always good taste. But actively growing vegetables has been a rewarding and tasty experience for previous space station crews.

Astronauts reported how satisfying it was to care for leafy green plants, radishes and hatch peppers and watch the plants flourish, eventually producing an edible bounty.

Scientists from the Human Research Program wondered if this sense of accomplishment could be taken any further. When astronauts like Scott Kelly or Christina Koch returned to Earth after long space flights, they said they couldn’t wait to feel the rain or the ocean waves again.

Guided imagery and virtual reality capabilities may be a necessary part of deep space flights in the future to remind astronauts of their sensory connection to “blue marbleeven as he moves away from view.

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