The Detrimental Effects of Long Duration Spaceflight on Human Wayfinding: The Behavioural and Neural Mechanisms Study (Wayfinding) - 12.28.17

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Science Objectives for Everyone
The microgravity environment in space does not allow astronauts to process vestibular cues as provided by Earth's gravity, and this may affect their wayfinding skills and their ability to perform complex spatial tasks (i.e., robotics) during stays on the International Space Station (ISS). The Detrimental Effects of Long Duration Spaceflight on Human Wayfinding: The Behavioural and Neural Mechanisms Study (Wayfinding) investigates the impact of long-duration exposure to microgravity on the behavioural and neurological mechanisms of wayfinding in astronauts. The study also explores how long the astronauts' cognitive and neurological changes persist following their return on Earth.
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The following content was provided by Giuseppe Iaria, Ph.D., and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.
Experiment Details

OpNom: Wayfinding

Principal Investigator(s)
Giuseppe Iaria, Ph.D., University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Jacob J. Bloomberg, Ph.D., NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, United States

Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Saint-Hubert, Quebec, Canada

Sponsoring Space Agency
Canadian Space Agency (CSA)

Sponsoring Organization
Information Pending

Research Benefits
Earth Benefits, Scientific Discovery, Space Exploration

ISS Expedition Duration

Expeditions Assigned

Previous Missions
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Experiment Description

Research Overview

  • The microgravity environment of space can have a significant impact on an astronaut’s body and brain. The impact produced by microgravity may be detrimental for the spatial orientation (i.e. wayfinding) skills of astronauts, since this complex behaviour requires the processing of vestibular information, which is mostly lacking in microgravity.
  • A negative impact on astronauts’ wayfinding skills may have a negative effect on a variety of complex tasks that they are required to perform during a long-term spaceflight.
  • The Detrimental Effects of Long Duration Spaceflight on Human Wayfinding: The Behavioural and Neural Mechanisms Study (Wayfinding) study aims to quantify the effects of microgravity on the astronauts’ spatial orientation skills by measuring the effects of microgravity on wayfinding both behaviourally and neurologically.
  • The findings of this study could provide help in developing countermeasures to be adopted for astronauts travelling in space. Additionally, the same findings may be used to predict the effects of microgravity on astronauts before traveling to space.


The purpose of The Detrimental Effects of Long Duration Spaceflight on Human Wayfinding: The Behavioural and Neural Mechanisms Study (Wayfinding) study is to provide a comprehensive assessment of the cognitive and neurological changes associated with exposure to microgravity as related to the astronauts’ wayfinding skills. The study has three specific objectives: (1) to quantify the alterations in spatial orientation skills that arise due to a typical stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS), (2) to assess the functional and structural neurological changes associated with altered spatial orientation skills resulting from a mission aboard the ISS, and (3) to evaluate if any changes associated with spaceflight persist after long-term readaptation to terrestrial environments.
Participants enrolled in this study undergo behavioural, neuroimaging, and neuropsychological assessments, which are performed once pre-flight, and three times post-flight. The behavioural assessment consists of a computerized battery of tests focused on evaluating a variety of spatial orientation skills, such as the ability to process distances and directional information, or the ability to form mental representations of an environment. This battery of tests characterizes the participants’ spatial cognition skills, which constitute the behavioral markers of performance that are critical to meeting Objectives 1 and 3.
During the neuroimaging assessment, participants undergo a battery of structural and functional neuroimaging measures, which are required to characterize neurological changes associated with spaceflight. These measures consists of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to evaluate changes in both functional activity of the brain while performing a computerized spatial orientation task, as well as changes in structural properties of the brain that might have occurred from the lack of vestibular information processing due to microgravity. These measures are necessary to meet Objectives 2 and 3.
The neuropsychological assessment consists of a series of computerized tests assessing a variety of cognitive functions, including executive function, attention, perception, memory, and mental imagery skills. This assessment ensures that observed spatial deficits are not due to more general cognitive processing issues, which is critical for meeting our Objectives 1-3.
The clear characterization of behavioural and neurological changes related to wayfinding skills, as investigated in this study, not only informs current research into preventative measures taken to combat space motion sickness and spatial disorientation, but may also illuminate unforeseen beneficial neurological outcomes that new preventive measures could target.

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Space Applications
Having a quantitative measure of the effects of microgravity on astronauts’ wayfinding skills can help to better prepare for, and recover from, spaceflight. The effects are evaluated from a behavioural and neurological perspective, which provide the research team with important insights into the development of countermeasures to help Astronauts deal with microgravity during spaceflight. In addition to having direct impact on Astronauts, this study also provide novel scientific knowledge on the specific contribution of vestibular and proprioceptive information on human wayfinding, and how the brain is responsible for such complex behaviour.

Earth Applications
The Wayfinding study also provides a better understanding of various medical conditions affecting movement, posture, and spatial orientation skills of individuals on Earth suffering from vestibular dysfunctions. Characterizing the neurological changes following exposure to microgravity could also provide useful information for developing wayfinding programs for patients affected by vestibular dysfunctions, and healthy individuals undergoing cognitive and neurological decline related to the aging process.

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Operational Requirements and Protocols

This investigation collects data pre- and post-flight only. Three types of measures are collected during pre- and post-flight BDCs:
  • Behavioural Testing: This battery of tests includes a series of computerized tasks evaluating different orientation skills, such as the ability to orient by using left-right directional information or environmental landmarks. The tests are performed in a virtual (i.e., video game-like) environment, and behavioural performance is recorded to characterize the cognitive skills of the individuals taking the tests. The total estimated duration of the battery is 60 minutes.
  • Neuroimaging Evaluation: The neuroimaging session includes a series of Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) scans aiming at evaluating the functional and structural neurological properties of the individuals undergoing the scans. The study includes MRI scans in which individuals are required to perform spatial orientation tasks similar to the ones included in the behavioural testing (evaluating functional neural activity), and MRI scans in which they are not required to perform any task (measuring structural properties of the brain).
  • Neuropsychological Testing: In this session, participants are required to perform a series of computerized tasks evaluating a variety of cognitive functions such as attention, perception, mental rotation, etc. These cognitive functions are all related to wayfinding skills. The performance of individuals at this series of tasks provide baseline information on the specific cognitive functions that contribute to spatial orientation skills.
Data collection schedule:
  • Pre-flight BDC: between Launch (L)-210 days and L-150 days.
  • Post-flight BDCs: 
  1. Between Return (R)+5 days and R+7 days: subset of the Behavioural Testing
  2. Between R+14 days and R+21 days
  3. Between R+150 days and R+210 days.

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Decadal Survey Recommendations

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Results/More Information

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Related Websites

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