Boosting Brain Function
Anecdotes and research with astronauts suggest that prolonged time in space can lead to decreasing motor skills and cognitive function.[1,2] And a study in rats showed that cosmic radiation exposure leads to neuronal inflammation, damage to synaptic integrity, and other important structural and molecular changes to neurons. In short, it is possible that the human brain may be physiologically challenged living in space. We may see a decline in our cognitive function – memory, attention, motor skills, and more. This is not unique to astronauts (or rats!). Most people commonly see reductions in cognitive function as they age, sometimes related to dietary and lifestyle choices. [4,5] This may be common, but is it natural or necessary?
Whether on Earth or Mars I would like my later years to be as memorable to me as my earlier ones. While shielding may reduce exposure to some radiation in space and on Mars, it may not protect against all of it. My plan of attack: increase the baseline before heading to space. There are many tools for increasing cognitive function. One that I applied was wholebody cryotherapy (WBC). WBC and body cooling have been successful in treating people with different cognitive impaired or neurological conditions (e.g. Multiple Sclerosis, and dementia/mild cognitive impairment). I don’t have cognitive impairment; however, the research also suggests that people with normal mental function obtain benefits too.
I adapted the Augustyńska et al. (2016) protocol, where 17 Polish national kayakers were exposed to twice-daily cryostimulation prior to training for a 10-day period.9 The kayakers had increased cognitive function domains at the end of the study.9 Over 10 consecutive days I undertook two 3-minute cryotherapy sessions at -110 degrees C with a 10-minute break period at room temperature in-between the two sessions to bring my body temperature back to normal. In the cryotherapy chamber I ensured maximal skin exposure by wearing only light shorts and sports bra, socks, Crocs, mittens, a surgical mask and ear muffs.
If you don’t measure it, you are just practicing. To assess the effectiveness of the WBC exposure, I applied the Cambridge Brain Sciences’ (CBS) ‘Daily Challenge’ battery of rotating tests. The CBS tests have been performed over 8 million times, and used in over 300 peer-reviewed studies. I tested myself in advance of starting my cryo experiment to become familiar with the process and reduce the effect of the newbie learner; daily throughout the 10-days of WBC; and then daily for the week after the last cryo exposure to see if there was a sustained response, or if it stopped when the exposure stopped.
As the graph below illustrates, at the start of WBC my C-Score (a summary of my cognitive function) was in line with the average of all people who had done the CBS tests (remember: over 8 million CBS tests have been done). By the end of my 10-day experiment, I was in the top 82% of respondents. This increased to the top 89% of respondents a week after the end of my experiment. This was a surprise in some ways, and not in others. Augustyńska et al. (2016) had shown that high-functioning people see increased mental capabilities that are maintained for at least 1.5 months after exposure, I was just surprised by the dramatic increase I personally obtained in such a relatively short period of time.
Access to WBC and a fear of extreme cold may make this option unattractive to some people! Fair enough! There are many other simple and accessible options that have been shown to improve cognitive function in healthy adults, including:
- Eating well. For example, eating a Mediterranean Diet slows the rate of cognitive decline as we age, and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s,
- Losing a few pounds. The higher one’s BMI, the lower the metabolic activity in parts of the brain including the prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus,
- Exercising. Combined strength and aerobic training regimens are more effective at improving specific cognitive function domains than aerobic training alone (although improvements still occur there too), and
- Sleeping well. Sleep disturbances (waking during the night, how long we sleep for, and sleep apnoea) may increase the risk of cognitive impairment.
Whether it’s fuelling, moving, resting or freezing the body, the capacity to take the brain to another level of cognitive function is within our grasp. These are all treatment and lifestyle approaches that I can apply on Earth or on Mars if I set my mind to it.
- RD Seidler, ‘Spaceflight Effects on Neurocognitive Performance: Extent, Longevity, and Neural Bases (NeuroMapping) – 05.30.18’, NASA, 2018, accessed 19 June 2018, available: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/1007.html.
- GG De la Torre, ‘Cognitive Neuroscience in Space’, Life: Open Access Journal, vol. 4, no. 3, 2014, pp. 281-294. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4206847/.
- VK Parihar et al., ‘Cosmic radiation exposure and persistent cognitive dysfunction’, Scientific Reports, vol. 6, article 34774, 2016. URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep34774.
- ER Sowell et al., ‘Mapping cortical change across the human life span’, Nature Neuroscience, vol. 6, 2003, pp. 309-315. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12548289.
- IJ Deary et al., ‘Age-associated cognitive decline’, British Medical Bulletin, vol. 92, no. 1, 2009, pp. 135-152. URL: https://academic.oup.com/bmb/article/92/1/135/332828.
- M Durante and FA Cucinotta, ‘Physical basis of radiation protection in space travel’, Reviews of Modern Physics, vol. 83, no. 4, 2011, pp. 1245-1281. URL: https://journals.aps.org/rmp/abstract/10.1103/RevModPhys.83.1245.
- B Gonzales et al., ‘Effects of a Training Program Involving Body Cooling on Physical and Cognitive Capacities and Quality of Life in Multiple Sclerosis Patients: A Pilot Study’, European Neurology, vol. 78, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 71-77. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28697504.
- J Rymaszewska et al., ‘Cryostimulation of whole body as a possible supportive biological approach in mild cognitive impairments’, European Psychiatry, vol. 33, Supplement, 2016, p. S95. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924933816000699.
- B Augustyńska, et al., ‘Assessment of the cognitive functions in kayakers of the national team after a training cycle combined with whole body cryotherapy’, Medical and Biological Sciences, vol. 30, no. 4, 2016, pp. 5-11. URL: https://repozytorium.umk.pl/handle/item/4228.
- Cambridge Brain Sciences, 2018. Available: https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com.
- C Féart, C Samieri and P Barberger-Gateau, ‘Mediterranean diet and cognitive function in older adults’, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, vol. 13, no. 1, 2010, pp. 14-18. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19834324.
- ND Volkow et al., ‘Inverse Association Between BMI and Prefrontal Metabolic Activity in Healthy Adults’, Obesity, vol. 17, no. 1, 2009, pp. 60-65. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18948965.
- S Colcombe et al., ‘Fitness Effects on the Cognitive Function of Older Adults: A Meta-Analytic Study’, Psychological Science, vol. 14, no. 2, 2003, pp. 125-130. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12661673.
- K Yaffe, CM Falvey and T Hoang, ‘Connections between sleep and cognition in older adults’, The Lancet Neurology, vol. 13, no. 10, 2014, pp. 1017-1028. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25231524.