'Brain Breathalyzer' For Astronauts

A tiny scanner nicknamed a "brain breathalyzer" may be sent aloft with astronauts to make sure that they are safe to drive (and perform their many mission tasks) in space. The head scanner is being developed by a team lead by Gary Strangman, a psychiatrist at Mass General in Boston.

The device uses near-infrared optical spectroscopy; the scanner sends weak pulses of near-infrared light into the brain, then reads back the reflected wavelengths. That reveals how much oxygen is in the blood, which is a good indicator of brain activity.


(Brain 'breathalzyer' scans for depression)

The concern is that astronauts often experience depression and fatigue in space; if a good way existed to determin when an astronaut is having a bad day, mistakes could be avoided.

"People do change in space," says Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco, US, who conducted the study of space station crew members. "If you can demonstrate their cognition changes, as well as gets slowed down in some way, then it would be very useful to have a tool to assess this."

The scanner could also be used to look for early signs of brain damage caused by environmental problems, like low oxygen or carbon monoxide poisoning.

How will astronauts react to a little black box that tells them whether or not they will be allowed to do the jobs for which they have trained over a period of years?

"Having a little black box telling them they may not to be able to do what they've been training for may not go over well, as you could imagine," Strangman says.

I think that most of us are not too happy with the idea of being brainscanned and evaluated without a medical reason. Astronauts might want to consider finding a probe hood, like Philip K. Dick describes in his 1955 short story The Hood Maker.

...Should he wear it? He had never done anything. He had nothing to hide - nothing disloyal to the Union. But the thought fascinated him. If he wore the hood his mind would be his own. Nobody could look into it. His mind would be long to him again, private, secret, to think as he wished, endless thoughts for no one else's consumption but his own...
(Read more about PKD's probe screen hood)

On the other hand, you might try tricking astronauts into using it; just tell them it is a consumer device used for fun and games (like PKD's cephalochromoscope).

From Tiny scanner may monitor astronauts' mental health via our friends at Frolix_8.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 7/5/2008)

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