Biomedical engineer, with a focus on emerging technologies and their role in the changing world of healthcare. He explores how they will impact the care delivered to patients, but is also equally interested in how they could benefit the future of long-term spaceflight. He believes both questions are opportunities for collaboration and inspiration!
How would you deal with physical and mental health needs on a three-year round-trip to Mars? Those are questions I often think about and I would like to take you on a tour of solutions already out here on Earth, that might benefit those first astronauts to the Red Planet.
Last week SpaceX performed another successful test of its Starship. The Starship is designed to eventually bring as many as a 100 people to Mars per flight.
We’ve seen many recent plans for human spaceflight, both commercial and non-commercial and it’s about right to say that humankind will go on more and longer duration space missions. A lot of engineering research is going into the development of rockets and other technological advancement, but just as important as getting there, will be getting there alive and healthy!
That’s not a trivial problem: Especially when we will go on deep space missions to Mars and beyond we will run into some basic limitations. There will be communication delays, we will have limited medical equipment on board due to limitations in mass, volume and electricity, and limited medical skills. A doctor can come along, but the doctor can also become sick, and of course, emergency evacuation to Earth will no longer be an option.
Therefore, we will need a sense of medical autonomy for those astronauts on the go. We will send the most healthy human beings on such a mission, but a 3-year trip is a long time to stay healthy in the extreme environment of outer space. If not physical problems, then also psychological issues can become a risk to the success of the mission, which the crew themselves will need to deal with. In this quest for medical autonomy, I argue, we can learn from trends in healthcare and healthcare innovation on Earth, so let’s shortly take a trip back to Earth.
In this short overview of the history of healthcare, a lot has happened since Hippocrates worked out the oath for medical professionals. None of the developments shown however, were as fundamental as the last one, the advent of digital health technologies. By becoming digital, solutions for healthcare have become smaller, faster, cheaper and in many cases, smarter. Solutions are leveraging Artificial Intelligence, Virtual and Augmented Reality, blockchain, voice recognition and 3D printing. These are just some of the technologies that are impacting healthcare.
As a result of this impact, we see various shifts in healthcare, going from a reactive system to more preventive care and from a one-size-fits-all-healthcare to precision medicine. Most importantly, however, you see a shift in power. The relationship between the doctor and his or her patient is changing from a more dependent relationship, into a partnership, in which the patient is empowered with technology, to take care of his/her own health or medical issues.
In other words, terrestrial patients are becoming more autonomous when it comes down to their health and care. It is this change, that is also needed for astronauts on their way to Mars. A different relationship between astronauts and their doctors in mission control is needed and this can be achieved, by leveraging new health technologies.
Here are 3 terrestrial examples:
While the previous example was already getting quite personal, giving the feeling you are texting with a real person, the next example actually feels like a real human. It is a digital human that acts and reacts in REAL time, as a real person - translate this to the situation on Mars, talking without delays to your virtual doctor, your human-like doctor.
These are just 3 examples of advanced Artificial Intelligence that are already a reality, but there are so many more centered around health and care, around the world.
This has been termed the “unbundling of the hospital” (Zayna Khayat), where AI is taking over specific bits of work traditionally being done by nurses or doctors. All these things could function on Mars. These initiatives are not yet focused on delivering healthcare in space, but what if you are an astronaut on your way to Mars - imagine you have all of this in your pocket. …Talk about medical autonomy!
I would love these two worlds to work together a lot more. For Earth applications space is a wonderful metaphor. If we can keep people healthy in space, imagine what we can do on Earth, in remote areas, or just around the corner... Moreover, we can learn from designing for the extreme, in a sector where just like healthcare, safety is always on top of mind. What would happen if we put the astronaut, a spaceship or Mars in the middle of this diagram above?
For one of my global virtual programs around healthcare applications of exponential technologies, we on one occasion invited the space sector. It resulted in a valuable mutual exchange of insights, but this was just one time... Imagine if these people meet on a regular basis!
So let’s go back to our ambition to explore space and our need for medical autonomy. I’d like to make this learning cycle and transfer of knowledge happen. Today I only mentioned solutions using Artificial Intelligence, but of course we will see efforts in Virtual and Augmented Reality, 3D printing and more, benefitting health up there in space and down here on Earth. Would you like to learn more about what healthcare innovation on Earth has to offer for space?
Feel free to reach out to me and let’s see what we can do!
As ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen comes closer to the end of his year at the Concordia research station in Antarctica, he begins to reflect on his experiences of the last year and the journey homewards. Enjoy the rest of his fascinating blog series by following the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
Concordia, October 4, 2020
Sunlight: about 14 hours per day
Windchill temperature: -85 °C
Mood: excited, but there is a pinch of nostalgia. Already…
It’s 1:00 AM. I am lying outside on the roof, together with Ines (glaciologist), Elisa (cook) and Andrea (vehicle mechanic). There is a full moon shining on us, and Mars is right next to it. I am not much of an astronomer, but its bright color stands out so clearly from all the other celestial objects that even I can recognize it instantly as the Red Planet. Looking to the southwest I see Jupiter and Saturn. Also pretty hard to miss. Usually that is where I find the Milky Way, but there is too much light now, even at this hour. An amber color brightens the horizon, beyond which I now realize again there are just so many miles of ice (something easily taken for granted here, but thinking back to that inbound flight to Concordia last year does the trick) separating us from the rest of the world. In front of it all, I look at the frosty metal bars, which always looked so surrealistic to me when I saw pictures of them back home. They have gone through winter as well…
The return of the sun was cool. ‘Here comes the sun’ (you know, that one from the Beatles) was heard all over the station while we impatiently and excitedly tried to catch a first glimpse of it mid-August. Since that moment the skies have become more and more blue, and the snow more and more bright. I have experienced the gradual return of daylight over the past weeks with a positive and fresh feeling, and a sense of anticipation has started to take hold of the station. Who are the people who will replace us? What are our plans after Concordia? I remember myself some weeks ago, lying in exactly the same position as I am right now, outside against a snow dune, sheltered from the wind and with a pleasant -50 degrees Celsius (I realize this perception must be taken relatively…), alone, and just letting the sunshine touch my face again. A special moment, that reminded me of how pleasant summer conditions are going to be.
But funny enough now, here on that roof, I actually recognize myself trying to enjoy the last bits of darkness instead. Winter is over, and the light at the horizon is making sure I realize it. It makes me think of those unbelievable starry skies that I will probably never see again. Clear, twinkling, full of ‘falling stars’, here and there a satellite passing by, and dominated by the humbling Milky Way and it’s two neighbouring Magellanic Clouds, which are actually other galaxies we gazed at with our naked eye! Being outside at night has been an impressive experience, every time again. I remember the pictures I tried to make some time ago, outside on my slippers, with pain in my toes and barely feeling my hands, but all overruled by the excitement to capture all those incredible stars and some vague aurora dancing around it. I am probably going to miss the night sooner than I sometimes like to think…
As a crew we have made wonderful memories as well. This evening for example I think we all felt that. We organized an ESA quiz some hours ago, revealing some particular results from the human research we have been doing here (‘Who lost the most weight?’, ‘How much DC16-poop will be sent back to Europe?’, ‘What is the most recurring motive on food pictures: pasta, pies, or middle fingers?’, you get the idea…), and reminding ourselves of some good moments we had this past year. Not just happy birthdays or rather inspiring Saturday night dance moves on ridiculous music in the living room disco, but much more sharing an extraordinary experience that only a handful of people will ever be able to grasp in its entirety, and perhaps most of all (and probably as a result of the latter) an endless amount of inside jokes. So different in nature, but unified through our experience.
Lying here, thinking about all these special moments and happy memories, I feel inspired and incredibly lucky to witness all this. An incredible place to teach us about the world we live in, and a beautiful moment of realization to which I decide to hold on as much as I can under the rising pressure of the upcoming summer. I wish I could share it with the people at home…
How will it be to go back home? Maybe not that easy after all. The experiences we undergo here are intense, and it may actually be a challenge to make others at home understand what we have gone through, and make them feel the way we have felt. I will miss the night. I will miss our shared experiences. Left alone with those strong memories once we reintegrate into our old lives, Concordia may be hard to let go of. Perhaps Concordia now may become the place where we feel better understood, and I guess it is for this reason that many eventually make the decision to go back. Our Italian station leader appropriately calls it ‘mal d’Antartide’. Having been here four times now, he understands as no other this strong feeling of nostalgia for Antarctica.
When we go back home we will find ourselves in the richness and beauty of our old lives on one hand, but always carrying Concordia in the other. Torn apart between two worlds, each with its own treasures, and the combination of which is only understood by you…
We welcome back helicopter flight physician Dr Alessandro Forti, as he recounts the true story of an incredible mountain rescue in the Dolomites. We never truly know when we wake up each morning if this could be our last day of life - we assume that all will be well - as did a keen mountaineer in Italy, whose life unexpectedly hung in the balance and in the responsible hands of a Helicopter Emergency Medical Service team with a Lucas device!
Do also take a look at Alessandro's previous blog, which began his dream to work in the rescue services.
We describe here a case of full neurologic recovery from accidental hypothermia with cardiac arrest, which involved the longest reported duration of mechanical cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and extracorporeal life support (8 hours, 42 minutes). A 31-year-old man experienced a witnessed hypothermic cardiac arrest with a core temperature of 26C° (78.8F) during a summer thunderstorm on the vertical wall of the Marmolada mountain in the Dolomites, Italy (Figure 1), in the late afternoon on a summer day (day 0).
The trapped climber was secured on the wall without any form of waterproof clothing and reportedly had already lost consciousness in the few minutes it took his companion to reach him. The companion signalled for help, using a light on his smartphone device directed toward a nearby mountain hut. The local helicopter emergency medical system was called (7:20 PM) (Figure 2).
FIGURE 2: Course of treatment. HEMS, hospital emergency medical system; CA, cardiac arrest; VF, ventricular fibrillation; ACLS, advanced cardiac life support; ECLS, extracorporeal life support; CRRT, continuous renal replacement therapy; NAVA, neurally adjusted ventilator assist; CPC, cerebral performance category
A physician-staffed helicopter reached the scene at 7:42 PM, and the unconscious patient was immediately evacuated with a 30-m winch operation. The helicopter landed nearby; the initial cardiac rhythm was a low-voltage ventricular fibrillation (7:48 PM). Resuscitation manoeuvres started immediately with manual CPR, followed after a few seconds by an electrical shock (200 J biphasic); mechanical CPR was started after one complete cycle of manual resuscitation. CPR was continued with a mechanical chest compression device (LUCAS 3; Physio Control, Redmond, WA); initial end-tidal carbon dioxide (ETCO2) level ranged between 14 and 22 mm Hg. At 8:20 PM, the patient was transferred by helicopter under continuous mechanical CPR to the spoke Hospital of Belluno, Italy (43 km; arrival at 8:34 PM), as a direct flight to the hub Hospital of Treviso, Italy, was impossible because of the darkness.
On arrival, the patient’s core temperature was stable (26.6C° [79.9F]) and cardiac output under continuous CPR was considered sufficient (ETCO2 22 mm Hg); therefore, in accordance with the local protocol for refractory hypothermic cardiac arrest, the patient was transferred to a road ambulance and transported to the hub hospital (Treviso, Italy; 83 km) under ongoing mechanical CPR; meanwhile, the extracorporeal life support team was alerted. After the patient’s arrival (11 PM), venous-arterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) was commenced (11:30 PM). Core temperature (esophageal) was 26.1C°. On day 10, there was a partial recovery of the ventricular function (left ventricular ejection fraction 40%) and ECMO was removed. On day 21, the patient was extubated; cerebral performance category score was 1, with only mild retrograde amnesia at day 28. Three months and 10 days after the accident, the patient left the rehabilitation unit and resumed normal daily life activities, with only minimal impairment of short-term verbal memory.
After one year the patient and the companion return to the place of the accident and with an US film factory and Stryker filmed a documentary about this event.
Space psychology is an extremely significant area of study. Combining insights from all areas of the wider field (i.e., organizational, industrial, cognitive, psychiatry), it aims to optimise human behaviour and cognition in space.
In terms of its history, space psychology has received varying degrees of attention over time. Whilst its importance was acknowledged at the inception of NASA in 1958; in the early 1990s Dr Patricia Santy (a NASA flight surgeon and psychiatrist) illustrated the industry’s relative disregard for the area, claiming that the application of psychology to space was running 20-30 years behind most other areas of medicine. However, with ever-increasing pressure from academics (i.e., the Committee on Space Biology and Medicine), the establishment of continuously inhabited long-term research stations with multinational crews (i.e., with astronauts joining cosmonauts on Mir in 1993, and the first stay on the ISS in 2000), and a number of high-profile incidents, for example, the theorised termination of the Soviet Soyuz T14-Salyut 7 mission due to depression and the attempted murder by astronaunt Lisa Nowak, the relevance of psychological issues has become increasingly pertinent.
Research within the field is predominantly focused on ensuring selection/training programmes prepare astronauts for the psychological demands of space travel, developing effective inflight support strategies and helping individuals re-adapt following their return to Earth. Studies can be conducted both in-orbit, and in terrestrial simulators and space analogs (i.e., undersea vessels and polar outposts), which attempt to produce a degree of environmental realism, and have aided in identifying the consequences of the intrapsychic/interpersonal stressors that astronauts encounter, such as team conflict, impaired communication/”psychological closing”, social isolation, threat of disaster, high-stakes/demanding work, public scrutiny, microgravity, radiation exposure, immobility etc... Such research findings can then be applied to develop models of successful crew performance (i.e., in terms of gender composition, and types of goals) and produce effective intervention strategies, like enhancement medications and therapeutic software. For instance, optical computer recognition scanners have been developed by NASA to track astronaut facial expressions and assess potential changes in their mood, allowing for personalized intervention strategies (i.e. computerized CBT treatment). Notably, whilst much research focuses on studying/overcoming the negative aspects of space travel, a robust finding is the salutogenic “overview effect” (White, 1987), which refers to how viewing the Earth from space fosters a sense of appreciation/wonder, spirituality and unity amongst crew members. It is theorised by Yaden et al. (2016) that this emotional reaction is a result of the juxtaposition between the Earth’s features and the black backdrop of space, which emphasises the beauty, vitality, and fragility of Earth.
With forecasted missions focusing on the potential for interplanetary (and eventually interstellar) travel, we need to prepare accordingly. Not only will these missions be much more protracted in terms of their distance/duration (with the longest period spent in space currently standing at 14 months, and a round trip to Mars predicted to take 2.5 years), they will also be subject to the pressure of larger, multinational crews, with no hope of evacuation, lack of protection from the Earth’s magnetic field, and distance-related communication delays (averaging 25 minutes to Mars/500 minutes to Neptune and back). Additionally, astronauts will not be able to observe the Earth and derive the aforementioned associated benefits of this experience; coined the ‘Earth-out-of-view phenomenon’ (Kanas, 2015; Kanas & Manzey, 2008), which may magnify potential feelings of homesickness and isolation. As such, we need to develop effective strategies to counteract these novel stressors, with researchers considering the benefit of fitting protective outer shields to isolated parts of spaceships (where astronauts spend the majority of their time) in order to mitigate against the effect of radiation from cosmic rays, email messages that conclude with suggested responses in order to reduce communication times, and virtual reality systems/on-board telescopes to minimise feelings of separation from Earth.
Having discussed the historical development of space psychology, the scope of research conducted, and the forecasted future of the field, I hope I have impressed on you the significance of such an exciting area of study. Managing human behaviour in space is an interdisciplinary effort, and as the government monopoly on spaceflight diminishes (i.e., with the launch of commercial/private space ventures like SpaceX), and the number/complexity of missions increases, the importance of space psychology will become ever more apparent.
ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen delivers the last part of his 'Let's Talk Science' blogs, written during his year at the Concordia research station in Antarctica. Catch-up with his previous blogs at Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
But there is more to the ESA lab, and I have saved the best for last. So, now that you are probably overloaded with theories and facts, let’s talk about something very different. Let’s talk about sex!
And before we continue, you have to promise me to turn on another song, to end this blog with some appropriate groove.
But maybe there is more to it than it seems, and what Cherry-Garrard says is not necessarily easy to do. We are human, after all. Sexuality is one of our core features, vital for our existence, and for many it is a fundamental source of pleasure, intimacy, bonding, and social relations. Researchers have shown how sexual deprivation can lead to frustration, anger and even depression, and also seen from a group perspective anecdotal accounts have shown that sexual desire and related feelings of jealousy and competition can lead to adaptation problems in extreme environments. Including Concordia!
But the problem with sex it that we don’t easily talk about it. Perhaps it is so close to our core that opening up about it can make us feel vulnerable. A sensitive topic, and while researchers are currently busy figuring out how to compose future space crews in terms of culture, personality and gender, data about sexual behaviour and its effects on team dynamics in extreme environments is basically non-existent! How do we cope? How, why, and when do we suffer? Recent political debates and scandals of sexual harassment have already highlighted the importance of having a work environment free of sexual hostility, and if you ask me, it would be irresponsible to send humans on a multi-billion dollar long-duration mission to Mars without being able to answer these questions!
As such, the project SWICE (‘sexual well-being and sexual security in isolated, confined and extreme environments’), for the first time in spaceflight research history, is breaking the taboo. As the first study of its kind, it aims to gather basic information about human sexuality while living in isolation and confinement, and it does so by making us in Concordia talk:
‘How often does another Concordia inhabitant asks me for sexual favours?’ (we better forget the jokes at the dinner table…), ‘How often does another Concordia inhabitant produces sexually explicit graffiti for display at Concordia?’ (we better forget the sexually explicit Play-Doh creations we made with the whole crew last month…), ‘How enjoyable is your sexual life right now?’, ‘How often do you masturbate?’, ‘How often do you experience an orgasm?’ (Damn, you want to know everything!).
We had a structured anonymous interview (you know, like in the movies, with voice distortion and stuff) before we came here, and we will repeat it upon our return to Europe. Meanwhile, here in Concordia we fill in questionnaires throughout the year that look much like the above. And to make sure that everyone feels safe and confident to provide such sensitive data, and as I don’t want to know how the others here spend their free time, we all got an iPad to send the data directly to Berlin. This way everything stays anonymous. Still, answering these questions are good for a solid lesson in shamelessness I would say! Everything for a safer, healthier, and more successful environment, and again, for the good cause of science!
And with that I think you have heard enough ESA lab, and enough material to ponder upon. So now you know a little more about the challenges that we face here and what keeps me busy so far from home, I can only encourage you to appreciate the things we sometimes miss here, and enjoy the environment you interact with. Take a deep breath of oxygen-rich air, get yourself dirty every once in a while, find some fresh food, explore the beautiful and ever-changing world around you!
If someone asked you – “what do you want to do when you become an adult?" – what would your response be?
Now, imagine me as a 14-year-old student at an art school, and one day going to a Red Cross course and recognizing that you love the idea of the First Rescue and Emergency services. My first answer was always – Astronaut! But… what should I do now? Astronaut or Doctor ...?
Solution? Helicopter flight physician!
But how can I do this thing…is it possible? Yes, it is!
I first studied medicine and became an anesthetist and intensivist. And so it was… once I graduated and then specialized in anesthesia, I began to frequent the world of Helicopter Rescue. A fantastic job that combines flight, wonderful landscapes (the Dolomites ...) and the human factor. A lot of different situations every day and in different places. The helicopter flight physician is responsible for providing casualties with emergency medical assistance at the accident site, as well as attending to patients during primary and secondary missions. The scope of activities also involves recovering patients from topographically difficult terrain by means of a rescue hoist. This applies exactly from the time the patient is put into your care until you hand them over to the medical staff responsible at the destination hospital.
I remember one early afternoon in September 2013, the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) Dispatching Centre of Treviso, Italy received a call from a person who told the operator that her cousin, a 53-year-old man with a previous history of inferior myocardial infarction, had suddenly fallen down while walking at home. While dispatching the nearest ambulance, the dispatcher provided CPR pre-arrival instructions to the caller, according to standard protocols. An EMS helicopter, staffed by an emergency physician (namely, me!) and a nurse, was dispatched to the scene. The first emergency unit, staffed by a nurse and an emergency technician, reached the patient within 10 minutes of the call and found the woman performing chest compressions as instructed by the dispatching center operator. My team in the helicopter reached the patient 10 minutes after the first unit started ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support). The cardiac rhythm was a persistent ventricular fibrillation and the decision was made to apply a LUCAS-3 chest compressions device to the patient, who was then transported directly to the hospital and catheterization laboratory. Selective percutaneous coronary angiography was performed with ongoing continuous mechanical chest compressions. Coronary angioplasty was performed on two coronary arteries. Five days after resuscitation, the patient was extubated and was alert and oriented. After 16 days he was discharged from the Intensive Care Unit and transferred to a post-intensive care unit. The patient survived without any neurological damage despite prolonged resuscitation and a call-to-ROSC (return of spontaneous circulation) interval of nearly 2 hours. The immediate beginning of chest compressions by the caller and uninterrupted CPR by medical teams preserved the brain from ischemic damage.
The mechanical chest compression device permitted safe and effective CPR during helicopter transportation directly to the catheterization laboratory, which permitted the removal of the coronary artery occlusions, which were preventing the ROSC.
This is why I think this is an amazing job…
A little about the author: Alessandro Forti
As well as being a certified specialist in Cardiac-Anaesthetics, Intensive Care Medicine and Aerospace Medicine, currently working as an intensivist, cardiac-anesthesiologist and HEMS doctor in northern Italy, Alessandro has a passion for space clinical medicine, which began in 2012 following a post-graduate course in Space Medicine at the San Donato Milanese University.
He has been involved in space medical research as a COSPAR (Committee on Space Research) collaborator and acted as a reviewer of many scientific articles for the journal Advances in Space Research (Elsevier). He was also Coordinator of the HEMS base in Pieve di Cadore-Italy from 2018-2020.
Alessandro is Principal Investigator for the research Mechanical Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation in Simulated Microgravity and Hypergravity Conditions: a manikin study, which took place during the 4th. parabolic flight campaign in Dübendorf (CH) in June 2020, in collaboration with the SkyLab Foundation, CNES and DLR.
His main areas of interest are space clinical medicine, CPR in different environments (mountain, avalanche victims, hypothermia, hyper and microgravity), ongoing CPR with ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) neuroprotection and neuromonitoring during DHCA (Deep Hypothermia Cardiac Arrest) in Cardiac Surgery.
We continue to follow along with the wonderful experience of ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen during his year spent at the Concordia research station in Antarctica. Catch-up with his previous blogs at Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
Fortunately it is not all body fluids (and solids) in the ESA lab. Other projects are more interested in the psychological adaptation to space-like environments. How do we deal mentally with the isolation far from home, the confinement, monotony, and life in a small international crew? The experiences and stressors that crews face during such missions require a certain degree of mental resilience, or may otherwise result in cognitive or behavioural problems and a loss of performance that can be dangerous to both the crew and the mission. To facilitate such psychological adaptation and resilience, the scientists behind MINDFULICE (‘role of mindfulness disposition in an isolated and confined environment’) for example are investigating the use of ‘mindfulness’ as a tool for deep space missions.
‘But isn’t that something for Buddhist monks?’, I hear you question…
I actually like to think it is quite the opposite. And although maybe it isn’t an easy construct to grasp, we are all already mindful to a certain degree. Perhaps it is best to think of it as a mental process, of being aware in the present moment, welcoming what is new with an intention of kindness and compassion, and being open-minded enough to see new possibilities in any given situation rather than relying on what you have previously learned. Everyone does that to a certain degree, but everyone can also learn to do it more.
Perhaps that is the biggest reason that the concept is gaining so much popularity so quickly. In our stressful and busy lives, mindfulness helps us to see solutions rather than problems, and research has already demonstrated many of its benefits, spanning from health and well-being to even business and artistic endeavours! A mindful attitude has shown to reduce stress while increasing resilience, task performance, enjoyment, psychological and even physical well-being, and in general a higher quality of life. That, I would say, is the promising power of the mind!
So can mindfulness also help astronauts to cope with the harshness of a deep space mission? We like to think so, but to find out we must first understand how it relates to stress and psychological wellbeing in such conditions, and Concordia serves as the ideal testing ground. Of course that means more tests for us, so over the year we fill in questionnaires and perform attention tasks to determine how mind- and stressful we actually are. And how about you? Are you mindful enough to one day float to the stars?
The next instalment of a fascinating blog series by ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen who spent a year at the Concordia research station in Antarctica. Catch-up with his previous blogs at Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
And so we keep delivering. Questionnaires about stress, physical and mental wellbeing, questionnaires about nutrition habits, stool samples, saliva samples, blood samples, taste tests with taste strips, smell tests with ‘Sniffin’ Sticks’. I make pictures of what I am eating twice a day, and our cook records our menu a whole year long. And, perhaps best of all, we all take a sachet every day, without even knowing if it contains a probiotic supplement, or nothing but just powder…
‘This reminds me of the dentist. And this of flower fields when I was young. And this one is industrial banana for sure!’ The ‘Sniffin’ Sticks’ induce vivid memories, but do our smell and taste change in this understimulating environment? And how does that relate to our eating habits? Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen
This time the tests are for another study called ICELAND (‘immune and microbiome changes in environments with limited antigen diversity’). ICELAND doesn’t focus on altitude, but instead uses the homogeneous environment of Concordia, another stressor to our body and mind, as a testbed for examining changes in immune health. Have you ever thought of the idea that, just like in Concordia or in space, a lack of new bacteria and viruses can actually deteriorate your immune system? Have you ever considered that we may be too hygienic? Just like losing muscles when we spend too much time on the couch, or losing skills if we don’t practice our brain, we can lose immune function when it is not stimulated, and according to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ this may be one of the reasons for an increased incidence of asthma and skin inflammation in children in developed countries. In a similar way, prolonged isolation and confinement in the stressful and ‘clean’ environments of Antarctica or space is thought to increase susceptibility to infections and even allergies!
But the immune system is complex, and the many interactions it holds with other body systems such as our digestive system and our brain are just being discovered. For example, changes in nutrition can have an effect on the composition and health of our gut bacteria, which in recent years have been found to play an important role in the development of immune-related diseases such as allergies and cancer. Other studies in addition have found gut health to be related to mental wellbeing as well. So can we maintain a healthy brain and a healthy immune system if we maintain a healthy gut? We still have much to learn about ourselves, and ICELAND aims to investigate these interesting interactions. Hence those daily sachets: comparing the test outcomes between those of us who took gut bacteria-stimulating probiotics and those who didn’t can give us valuable information about its potential to counter these health risks!
Director of Innovation at FAPERN/Coordinator of Space Analog Station @HabitatMarte
The space experience must be creative, cooperative and respectful. This is what the partnership established between the analog space station Habitat Marte and InnovaSpace is all about. The operationalization of the Habitat Marte project has permitted the bringing together of numerous enthusiastic people from the space area, this being the case for the virtual meeting that took place between myself and Thais Russomano, CEO of InnovaSpace.
When I see how much more we can do to help children and young people through the debate, education and popularisation of science using the space theme, this generates a high state of consciousness. It’s excellent having the possibility of interacting with the right people in order to create genuine relationships and interest in the professional growth and development of others, thus collaborating for a better world, with more justice and prosperity, especially for those who would like to include themselves more in the aerospace field. Many people find the space theme to be very inspiring and it seems to foster confidence and a great sense of personal fulfilment. I observe this in the trajectory of many young people who see this area as a future professional field
Bringing space into the forum of debate helps to expand our awareness and embrace a new vision/perception of problem-solving, as we have observed in the Habitat Marte experience where we are contemplating future space stations and how they can operate as self-sustaining models, considering water and waste management, food production in closed systems and energy generation. Indeed, the research interest in these three areas can translate to benefit the sustainability of planet Earth, especially in arid and semi-arid regions and those under the threat of climate change.
Furthermore, the popularisation of science education using space as a conduit can contribute to a revolution in education, as researchers believe space can serve as a gateway to attract the interest of children and young people and stimulate their enthusiasm for the STEAM areas, or as I put it S3TEAM - Space Science Sustainability Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics.
Retaining that interest in space can guide scientific career and advanced training choices, which is likely, in time, to lead to innovation and solutions to important problems faced on planet Earth. In this sense, the Habitat Marte space analog station is a pioneering project, as it has led to many young people developing new skills and building greater self-confidence to undertake careers and projects linked to space.
Habitat Marte emerged as an analog space station in December 2017, completing 3 years of activity during 2020. Before the pandemic in Brazil emerged, 32 missions had been carried out, however, following the spread of the coronavirus, face-to-face missions were suspended, and the alternative of virtual missions was introduced, which led to Habitat Marte completing 62 missions by the end of 2020. In addition, Habitat Marte has transformed from being a national organisation with Brazilian participants only, to receiving international applications from 28 countries.
At this moment it is important to present the values of Habitat Marte:
Creativity - because I believe in a methodology of encouraging participants to think about various characteristics of the operation of a Mars station, and these ideas have led to the publication of abstracts and papers.
Respect – because we believe in equality in all things, with women making up more than a quarter of our participants and our policy is to not discriminate on the basis of nationality, religion, social class, gender or sexual preference. Habitat Marte does not make judgments on these matters but encourages everyone.
Collaboration – because the activities of Habitat Marte focus on the participation of people from different areas of knowledge, generating opportunities to participate in competitions and other activities, to promote the creation of new content for application in space and on Earth.
Our social networks constantly share motivational knowledge and invitations for new participants. More information about Habitat Marte can be found by searching for the @HabitatMarte profile on social media, and by accessing our YouTube channel, where you will find almost 300 videos of quality content, many of which demonstrate the contribution of our projects to the ideals of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
With creativity, we hope that Habitat Marte will continue to expand its activities throughout 2021, finding economic sustainability, and also strengthening its ties with InnovaSpace.
The fascinating blog series chronicling a year in the life of ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen at the Concordia research station in Antarctica continues. Catch-up with his previous blogs at Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
Concordia, July 28, 2020
Sunlight: none, but the skies are turning colours again!
Windchill temperature: -83°C
Mood: some days a little tired, and on others, like the skies, full of colour
If you have read my previous posts, you have probably had enough of the beautiful-environment-and-working-together-drivel, and I am guessing you are now thinking something along the lines of: weren’t you supposed to do space research?
Good question, and it makes me realise that perhaps it is time for something more interesting: science!
But I am not sure if an ESA blog can go without any music, so before we continue here is a nice tune to walk you through:
Take, for example, the altitude. Here in Concordia we live at an altitude that is equivalent to about 3800 meters above sea level at the equator. As such, it's as if the air were to contain about 40% less oxygen for us to breath, and you definitely feel that when you arrive here by plane. Low energy, panting with the slightest exercise, waking up gasping for air multiple times a night, headache, dizziness, loss of appetite. Some really get sick from it, and in rare cases people have to be sent back to the coast due to life-threatening build-up of fluid in the lungs or brain! Yet, in 1978 Messner and Habeler reached the summit of Mount Everest at an altitude of 8848 meters without using any supplemental oxygen at all. How? They allowed time for their bodies to adapt.
At Concordia it usually takes a few days before you feel better. As your body senses a decrease in oxygen pressure it immediately tries to save your cells from getting damaged by sucking in more air (breathing) and pump more oxygen through the body (by increasing heart rate), and subsequently starts up a remarkable cascade of physiological processes that eventually leads to an increased production of red blood cells. As a result, the composition of our blood can drastically change over weeks, to help deliver sufficient oxygen to each of our cells. Pretty cool, don’t you think? Even though after eight months I still find myself hyperventilating up the stairs and having miserable nights every once in a while, at least it allows me to go to beautiful places like Concordia!
The adaptation however comes with a trade-off: if the need for oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is too high (at higher altitudes, where there is less oxygen) and too many red blood cells are made, the blood can become so thick that it increases the risk of blood clotting, high blood pressure in the lungs, and even heart failure! Such health issues have been seen in some people living permanently at high altitude. So how healthy actually is a year of adaptation at Concordia? Knowing that similar low oxygen conditions may exist in future space habitats for technical, economical and safety reasons, and considering the simultaneous blood volume alterations usually seen as an effect of microgravity, answering that question is important to understand astronaut health and safety during future long-duration space missions.
The ANTARCV study (‘alterations in total red blood cell volume and plasma volume during a one-year confinement in Antarctica: effect of hypoxia’) is implemented this year to do so. Each month the crew comes to the ESA lab for a lucky treatment of vein punctures, and an awkward procedure of breathing a very small and safe dose of carbon monoxide through small, restrictive tubes. This way I can determine our blood volumes. Besides I analyze how thick our blood is, store blood samples for further analysis in Europe, and we all wear a watch one week a month to record our activity. That way we make sure that the changes we see in blood volumes are not just a result of changes in physical activity. You can understand the crew loves me for it…
ANTARCV on full speed. By administering carbon monoxide and determining the increase in its concentration in the blood, we can calculate how many red blood cells are circulating through the body/ANTARCV op volle snelheid. Door koolstofmonoxide toe te dienen en de concentratietoename te bepalen in het bloed, kunnen we berekenen hoeveel rode bloedcellen er door het lichaam circuleren. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen
Still, all of us are participating in the research, and that is awesome! You see, doing human research here can be quite a challenge, not only because of language barriers, limited data transfer possibilities, or complex transportation logistics, but mostly so because the participation in these experiments is entirely voluntary. None of us works here primarily to serve as a test subject, and it is not that I can force anyone really… So to make sure I come home after a year with sufficient interesting data, I better make sure that everyone is happy with what we are doing here. For me perhaps a tricky mix between work and private life, but all for the good cause of science! After all, who doesn’t want to be part of the space program, bring benefit to future hivernauts and astronauts, and on top of that help to understand health challenges of our present-day society?
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