Research led by a UAE university on how isolation affects the human mind could help to create ways of reducing mental stress in astronauts during space travel.
Researchers at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) studied six test subjects who were isolated in a Russian space research facility for eight months, among them Emirati engineer Saleh Al Ameri.
Six back-up crew members, who remained outside the facility for the same duration, were also studied.
Findings showed that there was a drop in cognitive abilities in the isolated crew as a result of elevated mental stress.
“The findings of this research will impact future space missions locally and internationally,” said Dr Hasan Al-Nashash, professor in electrical engineering at AUS.
“They will help to develop techniques to mitigate stress in its early stages to protect astronauts’ mental health.
“An additional advantage of this study is applying the findings to our modern-day life in managing workplace environments to reduce the risk of mental stress, leading to an improved quality of life.”
The team used advanced brain imaging tools and studied behavioural markers to measure brain electrical activity, blood oxygenation and stress hormone levels.
They found an increase in the level of the stress hormone the longer the isolation continued and a significant decrease in information flow and direction between brain regions.
The experiments, called analogue missions, are part of a wider five-year research programme by Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems and Nasa’s Human Research Programme.
It involves three missions, the first of which was completed in 2019 when six crew members lived in isolation for four months.
The final and most challenging mission is expected to last for 12 months.
Mr Saleh, his back-up Abdullah Al Hammadi and the rest of the crew started the experiment on November 4, 2021, and completed it in July.
The facility in Moscow had its own atmosphere and air pressure to create a space-like environment.
Researchers observed the crew’s behaviour using cameras installed throughout the centre to see how astronauts would fare in near-isolation.
The analogue astronauts completed several experiments, including using virtual reality headsets to “fly a spaceship”.
They were required to dock it successfully with the ISS and Lunar Gateway ― a planned space station that will orbit the Moon.
They also drove a lunar rover on the Moon, collecting samples and transferring them back to the lunar base.
While no astronaut is going beyond Earth’s orbit any time soon, the UAE is sending Sultan Al Neyadi on the Arab world’s first long-duration mission to the International Space Station.
The astronaut will spend six months in the orbiting laboratory carrying out more than 20 science experiments.
The UAE will also take part in another analogue mission this year, in which an Emirati will be placed in near-isolation as part of a Nasa human research programme, called the Human Exploration Research Analogue (Hera).
Hera is a three-storey habitat that offers isolation, confinement and remote conditions that are experienced during space exploration missions.
There have been six campaigns under the programme so far, each of which included four to five missions, and ranged in duration from one to 45 days. It is not clear how long the mission involving the Emirati participant will be.
Such projects are increasingly being funded as space agencies plan to send astronauts to the Moon this decade and then eventually to Mars.