I guess the big question would be why are five neuroscientists going into the HISEAS Mars Habitat as part of a NASA funded research project and how do they help support the Mars mission?
The answer is quite simple - cognitive fatigue.
We all know what physical fatigue is - when we are physically exhausted and our body does not function as well as we might hope is would. Cognitive fatigue is the brain analog of that - a state in which our brain is exhausted and our brain does not function as well as we might hope it would.
And why is cognitive fatigue so important in terms of the Mars mission? When astronauts become cognitively fatigued they make mistakes, and when astronauts make mistakes in outer space they die, or at the very least, are immediately put into a very perilous situation.
Think of Apollo 13 - a lot of us saw the Tom Hanks movie but in case you did not - one of the Apollo 13 crew members made a simple mistake, possibly due to cognitive fatigue, and all of a sudden the entire crew was in danger. And I think we all know the truth in this - when our brains are tired we make poor decisions.
What we are testing in the HISEAS habitat is a technology to monitor and assess cognitive fatigue. Given that cognitive fatigue is a brain state - we are using a brain imaging technology called electroencephalography (EEG, or "brain waves") to directly monitor brain activity. That's what is cool about EEG - it is the actual signal of neurons firing in the brain. Using algorithms that we have developed, we analyze the EEG data to see how cognitively fatigued someone is. And as far as we can tell, that is the most accurate way to measure cognitive fatigue - by directly measuring brain activity using EEG.
So that is our mission and our research project in the HISEAS habitat - we are going to test and develop a technology to detect and monitor cognitive fatigue to support the astronauts that go on the Mars mission.
Dr. Olav Krigolson is the Associate Director for the Centre for Biomedical Research, an Associate Professor in Neuroscience, and the Principle Investigator of the Theoretical and Applied Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Victoria.