Brown University recently received a three-year,
$638,000 grant to develop a system to monitor the cognitive abilities
of astronauts during a proposed NASA manned mission to Mars in 2020.

Prolonged exposure to cosmic rays may damage regions of the brain
responsible for cognition, decision-making and language comprehension, a
significant danger when the trip to Mars is expected to take six months,
said Philip Lieberman, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and
the study’s lead researcher.

A computer system that could remotely monitor the cognitive functioning of
astronauts by using acoustic measures of their speech would allow NASA to
respond to changes during a mission. The current available technology for
speech analysis is an interactive testing system that cannot be used for
online monitoring, said Lieberman.

The grant is one of 86 awarded by the National Space Biomedical Research
Institute (, a consortium of leading research institutions
working toward the goal of reducing health concerns related to space

To develop the new technology, researchers will study two groups of
individuals with neural deficits similar to those that may occur from
prolonged exposure to cosmic rays. Researchers will track 30 climbers on
Mount Everest, where the thinning atmosphere gradually effects neural
processes, and, separately, 150 people with Parkinson’s Disease, who are
experiencing more profound neural damage.

On Mount Everest, researchers will monitor climbers throughout their
ascent using two-way radios. At various altitudes, climbers will be
asked to complete cognitive and emotional tests, and their voices will
be recorded through radio communication with base camp. The elements of
extreme stress and danger, which are inherent to the climb, also provide
a valuable similarity to the space mission. The first climbing expedition
and data collection is scheduled for the end of March.

At Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, researchers will give Parkinson’s
patients a similar battery of cognitive and emotional tests and tape
record their responses.

The research project is based on new insights into how brains work. The
human brain does not have language or thinking centers, said Lieberman.
Complex acts such as understanding the meaning of a sentence, reaching
a decision or planning ahead involve activity in many parts of the
brain, including the basal ganglia.

Applications for technology that could remotely monitor an individual’s
cognitive ability are not limited to space flight. Slow leaks of carbon
monoxide in airplanes, which do not typically set off alarms intended
for sudden large leaks, may go undetected and lead to crashes, Lieberman
said. A system that would automatically monitor the pilot’s conversation
and detect the gradual effects of the poisoning may prevent loss of life.
Such technology could also impact the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease,
in which day-to-day monitoring of patients could be performed by telephone.

Lieberman is collaborating with John Mertus, a computer systems designer
in cognitive and linguistic sciences; Joseph Friedman, a clinical
professor of neuroscience at the Brown Medical School; and Geoffry Tabin,
associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Vermont. Tabin
is a world-class mountain climber whose expertise includes extreme
altitude physiology.