Dec. 2, 2019

Researchers test how well people make decisions in outer space and other stressful spots

UCalgary prof Kent Hecker part of team at Mars Habitat to test mobile gear to monitor brain waves

When you’re an astronaut on Mars, a doctor in an emergency department or veterinarian performing emergency surgery, does fatigue affect your ability to make critical life-or-death decisions? Canadian researchers are heading to the remote Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) Mars Habitat to test new mobile electroencephalography (EEG) technologies to see whether they can reliably monitor astronauts’ brain function and fatigue during missions in outer space.

“It's a neural headband,” says Dr. Kent Hecker, PhD (above). Hecker is associate professor and health professions education researcher in the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Cumming School of Medicine, and a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

“You put it on and we can measure your brain activity through Bluetooth on an iPad or an iPhone," he says. "We’re using them to assess decision-making, learning, attention and perception in potentially extreme or stressful environments.”   

During a week at the physically isolated Mars Habitat, the scientists will wear the EEG devices for 10 minutes at different times during the day and perform certain tasks to track changes in their decision-making, learning, attention and perception.

“The idea is can we use mobile EEG technology in order to assess cognitive fatigue and decision-making in these extreme environments, and can we do it in such a way that is as non-invasive as possible to the people that go on these missions?”

The research project is co-led by Hecker along with Dr. Olav Krigolson, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Victoria, Dr. Gordon Binsted, PhD, at UBC’s Okanagan Campus and Dr. Michaela Musilova, PhD, at the University of Hawaii and International MoonBase Alliance. The team also includes two UVic PhD students, Tom Ferguson and Chad Williams.

The researchers’ findings could have wide-ranging impacts for astronauts on long missions in outer space and others who work long, stressful hours here on the ground, including emergency room physicians, urgent care veterinarians and pilots.

“Being fully immersed in an environment will allow us to determine how best to use these technologies,” says Hecker, who studies performance in health professions education. “I'm interested in bringing these types of technologies back and seeing if they could be used in health professions environments such as operating or emergency rooms to help people better understand decisions that were made rightly or wrongly along the way.”

The EEG equipment consists of hardware MUSE EEG and software from Suva Technologies, both Canadian companies. The team of scientists will be on Mauna Loa side of the Big Island of Hawaii from Dec. 1 to 9, and they will post daily reports and their own brain performance data.