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The near-infrared scanner, undergoing trials on NASA's 'Vomit comet' weightless simulator
NASA has been working on the problems of depression and moodswings by astronauts. The lack of gravity in orbit causes blood to pool in the brain, affecting cognition. What we have lacked is a means to monitor this situation and assess how thought patterns are affected.
The standard test, fMRI, is useless in these situations, for several reasons. Firstly, if blood is pooling in the brain, its not flowing as it normally would and a standard measure of blood flow is not going to produce helpful data, as it will miss the near-stagnant areas. Secondly, an fMRI is a bulky piece of equipment, and having astronauts move about strapped to one is impractical in the extreme.
A new brain blood flow monitoring system was needed, something lightweight and small that could be wormn on the head and still monitor the brain in real-time. Something as small as say the EPOC, but at the same time capable of monitoring the brain's health, and blood flow. Something that would have obvious implications beyond use in space.
Currently, Gary Strangman, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is leading development of a non-invasive scanner, which fires weak pulses of near-infrared light into the brain, then reads back what's reflected. This has the effect of monitoring blood flow like a fMRI, as well as patterns of actual activity in the brain. In short, it combines several methods of reading in a single technology.
Near-infrared optical spectroscopy functions very much like fMRI, but the equipment is a fraction of the size. Current devices are accurate enough to discern fatigue as well as potential brain damage, and general mood. Data can be transmitted back to Earth to warn mission control, in much the same way it could be transmitted over the Internet, on Earth, appraising doctors of a person's mental health.
In June, researchers tested the device in Florida on an aircraft that achieves periods of weightlessness by flying in steep parabolas. The flight showed the device works outside controlled lab settings, and crucially, that it works in weightlessness.
Brain scanner for astronauts passes 'vomit comet' test
Tiny scanner may monitor astronauts' mental health