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Caves, space and neuroscience

Spelunking could help us better understand long-term spaceflight, and our brains

The adverse conditions of cave exploration could be a valuable environment to better understand the effects of long-term spaceflight on the human brain, and the brain itself.

That is according to a recent article published in Frontiers of Neuroscience by Nicolette Mogilever, an undergraduate at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro) of McGill University, and her supervisor Emily Coffey, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at The Neuro and now a faculty member at Concordia University.

Humans have not left the orbit of Earth since the last mission to the moon in 1972, but lately there has been renewed interest in a return to the lunar surface and beyond that to Mars. Such a long spaceflight would put extreme strain on a human being both physically and psychologically, and it’s important that astronauts are selected and prepared to ensure the best chance of a safe return. Part of this must involve understanding the impact of spaceflight on the human nervous system.

Unfortunately, that poses a challenge because brain imaging conducted in lab conditions does not replicate the extreme environment of space, making it unclear if the results can be applied to long-term spaceflight. Conducting neuroscience research in space would be ideal, but it is extremely expensive, and is limited by small sample sizes, limited equipment, and slow planning cycles.

In her review, Mogilever researched deep cave diving as a potential happy medium between the lab and space. Even though we don’t float underground, caving, also known as spelunking, presents a lot of the same challenges as space: isolation, mental and physical stress, confined spaces, and need for self-reliance and problem solving. Recently, more portable neuroimaging tools have come on the market that can be worn or carried along in portable containers, making it possible to monitor brain function in remote locations.

Portable polysomnography (PSG), for example, can measure the quality and architecture of sleep and can use sound to improve sleep patterns. Lightweight headbands that do not require skin preparation are now available to collect PSG data, in the place of the bulky and delicate standard equipment. Using PSG in during cave expeditions could test its usefulness in conditions similar to spaceflight.

Conducting neuroscience underground could also have benefits for our understanding of the brain in general, by providing unique opportunities to observe brain function as it copes with complex, realistic, extreme and sometimes threatening environments.

“We believe that cave expeditions offer unique possibilities for cognitive neuroscience that will complement laboratory work and help to improve human performance and safety in operational environments, both on Earth and in space,” says Mogilever. “In addition to contributing to exploration activities and fundamental knowledge of human brain function, these investigations could benefit people in safety critical environments and occupations, such as shift-workers, firefighters, medical teams, or air traffic controllers.”

The Montreal Neurological Institute & Hospital is a McGill University research and teaching institute; delivering the highest quality of care to patients, as part of the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. The Neuro is proud to be a Killam Institution, supported by the Killam Trusts.