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What about astronauts mental health? A talk with Funmilola Oluwafemi

Funmilola Oluwafemi is a Space Bio-Scientist, the Astrobiology Unit Head and the Leading Expert of Microgravity Research at the Space Agency of Nigeria. She is currently the Space Environment Working Group Lead of the Space Safety and Sustainability Project Group of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) in support of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) on Space Applications. But she is also a winner of several moral and academic awards with publications in several reputable journals and magazines.

In A review in astronaut mental health in Manned missions: Potential interventions for cognitive and mental health challenges she deals in depth with Human Resources in Space but especially Mental Health in orbit.

The paper, will be the subject of the following interview with the author who will emphasize its dynamics and main themes. This interview will have two purposes, in accordance with the intentions of the Swiss Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Bring out the issues and present solutions.

Let’s start with the psychological stress. What causes it from an individual perspective?

Psychological stress could be said to be an internal state of mind with a feeling of being overwhelmed by one or more factors. These factors could be social, biophysical or scientific.

Social factor in relationship with others such as the person’s culture, interpersonal interactions (which may be linked with genetics), extreme isolation and loneliness, limited novelty about something, lack of communication with people, family challenges, homesickness etc.

Biophysical factor could be as a result of sleep deprivation, not having good or sufficient food that is palatable, not having a serene environment that may not allow for a full sensory experience of true depth, touch, smell and even taste.

The scientific factor could be as a result of physical impact on the head or brain (e.g. due to accident, physical aggression through beating on the head causing a damage to the brain etc.), genetic (which determines the extent to which each person absorbs content of verbal, health, nutrition, environment etc.), good nutrition as it improves brain’s health etc.

In your paper you very often refer to the ethical point of view. When do ethnic/gender inequality and, more generally, team dynamics based on power affect mental health?

Having the same ethnicity could influence a better relationship because the people involved may have common race, religion, language or culture. Having these in common makes them to be relaxed, feeling at home, and having improved mental health.

Fewer number or a person of a gender in a team may affect the psychology of the reduced number gender as low self-esteem may set in for the reduced number gender and high self-esteem for the more numbered gender.

Power can affect mental health when a leader has been empowered to rule but the followers bluntly refuse to obey! Maybe the followers can say that they don’t care what the consequences of our disobedience will lead to. This can be highly disturbing for the leader causing mental health challenge.

How does the drastic change of circadian rhythm affect the health of astronauts?

Once on a space mission, there is a tight scheduled activity. As the daily cycle of activity of astronauts at the space station will definitely be different from their daily cycle of activity on the earth; this change affects their circadian rhythm and may consequently affect their sleep duration as there is always significant workload. This leads to reduced performance and may also affect mission objectives negatively. Also carrying out the same activity everyday during mission can be boring. All of these can affect their mental health.

Then there is the whole problem with radiations, for which there are both animal and human occurrences. Can you tell us about this?

It’s no doubt that the radiation when going for a long-term manned mission to space is lethal – ranging from acute effects (causing vomiting, fatigue, nausea, diseases of the central nervous system (CNS), that can lead to changes in motor function and behavior – psychology) to chronic effects (that causes increased risk of cancer, degenerative cardiac disease, and cataracts and vision impairment). Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) also called radiation sickness or toxicity is an acute illness instigated by the penetration of a high dose of radiation to most part of the body or the whole body within a short time (minutes).

Although there are non-ionizing radiation and ionizing radiation that differ in their detrimental effects on biological organisms. Non-ionizing radiation is potentially less harmful than the ionizing radiation because non-ionizing has less energy than ionizing and can cause molecules to move in an atom but it cannot remove electrons.

What are the consequences?

Radiation affects the central nervous system which could therefore affect the brain structure and function, and can lead to mental health challenge. The bombardment of animals with radiation for experimental purposes give clue to the effects of ionizing-radiation on humans. It was deduced that some certain fruits extracts attenuated radiation effects in rodents’ behaviors, cognition and therefore brain function. Note that mammal studies accounts for only about 50% result on human. Mammals are used because it is inhuman to knowingly subject man to deadly ionizing radiation. Results gathered from these occurrences suggest that radiation exposure in humans can negatively impact memory, learning, and IQ; decreasing long-term verbal memory, verbal fluency, and short-term visual memory. Worse results such as an increase in mortality from dementia and schizophrenia have also been observed.

Are there any solutions to solve these important exposure problems?

There are radioprotector plants. Generally, radioprotectors are compounds that are intentionally made to decrease the damage in normal tissues caused by radiation. These compounds could be synthetic or isolated from natural sources. In this context, the non-synthetic is the preferred choice; as pharmacological intervention (chemical radioprotection) could be the most provident strategy to defend humans against the ionizing radiation harmful effects. Aside some specific plants been able to absorb radiation (anti-radiation plants), and some plants or their parts (such as roots, seeds, bark, stem, flowers, leaves, fruits and rhizome after extraction) serving as radioprotector; there are also damages that radiation cause on plants.

The plants or their parts that serve as effective chemical radioprotector of pharmacological intervention can be taken as herbal or traditional medicine. Although plants cannot consume a significant amount of radiation, anti-radiation plants are available, that can absorb measurable degree and comparatively low radiation when they are in the line of sight between human and the radiator.

One of the solutions to these affections are also the analog missions. How can they be used to improve the condition of astronauts, both scientifically and humanly?

Space human analog missions are undertaken on the earth in locations having physical similarities to the extreme space environments, therefore mimicking missions to the Moon or Mars or asteroids. These locations could be on the field or in water, having crew teams live, work and collaborate together during missions that could range from days to months to years. This is because not all experiments can be done in space – there is not enough time, fund, facilities and manpower. Analog missions help to study the effects of space exploration faster and cheaper, and can make researchers and institutions to have international platform for global network building.

But how exactly do they work?

Scientifically, analog missions allow feedback for mission optimization, finding ways to keep crew members healthy in body and mind, both during and after the missions. The five hazards of human spaceflight described by NASA as the main stressors that can change the physical and mental health of astronauts are addressed in analog missions. These hazards are: isolation and confinement, distance from the earth, microgravity, radiation, and hostile/closed environments. These analog missions are environment that simulate one or more of these conditions to some degree studying the effects of space exploration on humans with the benefits of the research applicable on earth too.

Humanly, the most important reason for analog missions is to see how astronauts adjust to unexpected situations. Helps to tackle the challenge of keeping humans healthy in the deeper space environment (i.e. how space travel affects human health); gaining experience for future deep space manned missions. This reduces risk (improve risk assessments) for humans and develop techniques to reduce those risks for the real future missions in several ways such as to work efficiently and safely on another planet, diagnose and treat medical issues, perform well in team, manage radiation through SRL, and to be able to do other critical factors that are crucial to accomplishing missions.

You also studied the topic of nutrition into space stations. How the ability to cultivate, and in orbit, many of their own meals can help astronauts?

The plants grown in space for meal are fresh and healthier, than those already made, preserved and brought to space. These fresh foods keep them happier, improving their psychology (that they made their meals themselves, and that they also created life on-board); and the environmental or the space station morale is improved because human and plants are ideal companions of gaseous exchange. This also reduces the payload to the space station; adds to the natural environment and décor.     

Many solutions are discussed in your paper about health, such as exposing astronauts to better light, allowing them more flexible schedules to communicate with families, and generally having better access to the sphere of personal passions and fun. One could, from this point of view, develop a story of non-terrestrial entertainment modes. Do you think it is a field not sufficiently studied and not sufficiently funded?

Non-terrestrial entertainment field may be said to be not sufficiently studied and funded because the application of it to humans on the earth has not gained much publicity.

This field has a great applicability to us on earth. The salient recommendations, interventions or possible solutions to cognitive and mental health challenges of space explorers discussed in the paper “A review in astronaut mental health in Manned missions: Potential interventions for cognitive and mental health challenges” can be successfully applied to the people living in isolation such as those in the prisons, isolated for quarantine or “stay at home” as a result of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19) pandemic, or even to special people such as the adolescent age group as they tend to develop to isolate at this stage of their lives. The applicability is massive!

From the point of view of new technologies, what do you think have improved the astronauts’ journey for the better?

3 Dimensional (3D) food printing, live streaming with the public at certain time, 3D graphic zooming interface whereby an explorer can enter ‘modules’ of treatment, self-assessment, training and other resources and Virtual Space Station (VSS) research prototype that includes treatment for interpersonal conflict stress and anxiety are believed to be in place now. This would have improved the astronauts’ journey better.

Read more:

  1. A disruptive way to talk about deep space. An interview with Adrian Fartade
  2. Fresh vegetables on space bases. How this will also save the planet

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