Researchers have long known that blasting off into space can have adverse impacts on the brain, from the g-forces associated with liftoff and landing, to t he radiation, microgravity, and isolation of space travel. To help mitigate those effects, NASA in coordination with the BrainHQ app, conducted a study to see if exercises on the app could help ward off any brain fog caused by space travel. I got the chance to discuss the research with BrainHQ’s senior research scientist Dr. Mouna Attarha.
Mouna Attarha So NASA, perhaps not surprisingly at all, is really ahead of the curve. Much of the work to date on brain training has been devoted to older adults or folks diagnosed with a specific condition. For example, people with mild cognitive impairment or schizophrenia or ADHD. But it’s only recently that certain organizations, such as the military and pro sports teams, that elite performers are using BrainHQ to get a competitive edge. So the way this all unfolded a couple of years ago is that a researcher from NASA named Dr. Carol Mullinax was leading an effort to see if BrainHQ could improve cognitive performance in an astronaut-like population. So I got her note, I was absolutely thrilled to join her and her team on this exciting study. Astronauts are, of course, very healthy individuals with very healthy brains, that’s probably no surprise. But it’s known that space travel adversely affects our brains and bodies. So they need simple tools to counter what is essentially, a major environmental assault on the brain and body.
Mouna Attarha So in this initial study, they recruited employees at the Johnson Space Center in the same age range as astronauts selected for the Artemis Mission, with advanced degrees in similar disciplines. You can think pilots or those with master’s or doctorate degrees. And they evaluated their cognition using something called the NASA Cognition Test Battery, which was designed for astronauts and assesses things like their brain speed, their memory, their attention, learning, their decision making. And then they gave them 18 hours of BrainHQ over six weeks. And once folks finished their training, they got the NASA Cognition Battery again, to see if their performance changed. And what they found was a huge improvement on the training exercises. That’s what we would expect, people improved on what they trained on. Although, I will say that, this group of people showed a pretty striking increase. But what was really exciting to us was that they also got better on the NASA cognition battery, which shows that they’re training generalized. So the next step here is to test the training in a large study where some folks get BrainHQ and others get active control of the set of computer games. You can think of these like crossword puzzles, Sudoku and word search and other games that people really like to play. And then the ultimate question is, whether this is something that can counter the effects of space travel for the future Artemis crew.
Eric White So I’m going to ask you to speculate and look down the line here. It could be something where astronauts are out or in their spacecraft during a mission. And every day they have to do a set of something similar, if not, the actual BrainHQ app or do something similar where they’re kind of doing the brain teasers and stuff like that that you mentioned, just to keep their mind sharp while they’re up there.
Mouna Attarha That’s exactly right. They would have a tablet or any sort of Internet connected device. They would spend maybe, 20 minutes a day or four sessions of 30 minutes a week. And they would do that in an ongoing way to help their brain stay resilient and sharp against some of these assaults that happen when we’re out in space.
Eric White Yeah. And working with NASA, what did they tell you about the effects that astronauts describe, whether it’s brain fog, a term that we’re all used to now. But also, they’ve shown clinically that there is an aging process that is sped up from the kind of travel and endurance that they have to take on. What did they tell you about that?
Mouna Attarha Exactly. Well, so we know that our brains change based on our environment. The brain has billions of neurons. These are, of course, cells that transmit information. And the bodies of these cells form what’s called gray matter. And the tails of those cells form what’s called white matter. And we know that the volumes of both, your gray matter and your white matter, get altered due to the gravitational forces from being up in space. So important brain tissue is being affected by space exploration, which of course, isn’t good. We also know that social engagement and novelty and stimulation is very important for brain health. But traveling to Mars can take a while, up to ten months or so.
Eric White And there’s only a few people to talk to.
Mouna Attarha Exactly. It’s the same set of people. So that’s a very, very long time to be socially isolated without the normal cognitive stimulation a person normally gets from being on Earth. On earth, we can explore new hiking trail, we can go out with friends, we can pick up a new hobby as we please. And what’s striking as you alluded to, is that we see these kinds of changes in aging populations as well. They show changes in brain tissue and being socially isolated accelerates brain aging as well. So NASA is very rightfully thinking about these core set of issues and looking to identify tools that astronauts can use to strengthen their brain, in really an ongoing way so that they can stay in peak performance.
Eric White You mentioned some similarities to the work you all did do with the Defense Department. In speaking to a couple of astronauts, they have described, a lot of them are either former or ex-military, that the process of being up in space where you have a heightened alertness all the time is very similar to being out in a dangerous area here on Earth. And that can kind of lead to sort of same similar symptoms as PTSD. Can you tell me about any similarities that you see between those two? Obviously, very different job paths. But is there something there that in your work with the Defense Department in working with soldiers who are experiencing brain trauma and things of that nature?
Mouna Attarha Yeah. So successful space travel, as well as successful military missions, they require extraordinarily high levels of cognitive performance. In space, it’s just their crew and their brains out they’re out on the field. It’s them and their comrades. So in both cases, the stakes are very high. And these are just those sorts of environments where very small errors can actually cause pretty critical issues. So we do use this training to build cognitive resilience and reserves to kind of counter that ongoing state of stressors that these folks typically find themselves in.
Eric White So why don’t you tell me about the BrainHQ itself, and what it does and some of the other work that you all do in similar aspects with other industries? I know you talked a little bit about it, but can you expand on that?
Mouna Attarha Yeah, that’s a really great question. Our understanding of the brain has changed pretty significantly over the past few decades. The prevailing view historically was that the brain was hard wired. There was nothing you could do to improve your brain health beyond those critical periods and very, very early childhood. And as you aged, it was only natural for all parts of the system the wiring, the plumbing to degrade and just stop working. But what we know now, is that the adult brain is highly plastic. It can adapt, it can reorganize itself, it can drive structural, functional chemical changes throughout your life based on what you learn and what you experience. So after spending several decades improving the brains of animals, like rats or mice or monkeys throughout their lives, our co-founder, Dr. Michael Merzenich, he’s a world renowned neuroscientist from [University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)]. He took those 30 years of findings in neuroscience and decided, hey, isn’t it time to improve the brains of humans? So we built BrainHQ, we tested it in human studies to confirm to work. The program is simply an online training app. It’s available on Web, iOS and Android, so that’s easy to access anywhere with an internet connection. And the way it works is that we work to improve the speed and accuracy of what you see and what you hear. And we know now, from more than 200 published studies from using the program, that this training changes your brain to improve your cognition and how you function in your daily life.
Eric White So coming up through school, I was always told the old adage of the brain is the organ that we know the least about in humans. Is that’s still true to this day?
Mouna Attarha Absolutely. I think that cardiologists are doing the best with their organ, and I think there is still quite a lot more we need to learn about the brain.