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Bio-Psycho-Social: All Relevant in Space

What happens when astronauts on extended missions become really angry at a crewmate, or seriously melancholy? In the small, isolated confines of a spaceship what can they do? A team of researchers under the auspices of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI)--a consortium of institutions studying health risks related to long-duration space flight--is creating a smart medical system designed to help distant space farers resolve or mitigate biopsychosocial upsets. The researche

By | August 19, 2002

What happens when astronauts on extended missions become really angry at a crewmate, or seriously melancholy? In the small, isolated confines of a spaceship what can they do?

A team of researchers under the auspices of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI)--a consortium of institutions studying health risks related to long-duration space flight--is creating a smart medical system designed to help distant space farers resolve or mitigate biopsychosocial upsets. The researchers project the system could also benefit those on the ground working in extreme or highly stressful environments, including scientists working at polar and underwater research centers, or even overcrowded laboratories.

"All of us face conflicts and need to work out problems, ... but on long-term space missions, one's options are severely limited--you can't just take some distance or go on vacation," notes former shuttle astronaut and co-principal investigator Jay C. Buckey Jr., professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School. "These stresses can lead to mood disturbances, loss of sleep, conflicts and work problems, and the blues," says research colleague Jim Carter, a member of the NSBRI neurobehavioral and psychosocial factors team.

The system will feature user-recognition and personalized programs, tailored to match individuals' needs and preferred styles of learning. It will not use artificial intelligence. "It won't understand what the user is saying with regard to the subjective aspects of the problem, but it will offer up options of possible actions to take," says Carter.

Buckey, Carter, and colleagues, who are creating the prototype now, are consulting with everyone from astronauts to ground crews and longtime NASA medical personnel to experts in the pertinent fields. "We're working with [longtime NASA psychologist] Al Holland, and from his experience, knowledge, and data we know from the manned space flights a good deal about what can go wrong from what has gone wrong in the past," says Carter.

Buckey and Carter are focusing on conflict resolution and mild depression for the first two of what they hope will be many self-help modules. The conflict module will offer up simulations based on hypothetical events that could happen. These simulations will be filmed on a space station set and played out with professional actors. The depression module will assist the astronaut in treating his or her blues with a technique known as problem solving therapy (PST). Developed in the United Kingdom, PST is based on the premise that problems can contribute to depression, and by solving those problems, depression is reduced.

A.J.S. Rayl (ajsrayl@DirectTVInternet.com) is a contributing editor.

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