Backgrounder Article from  Canadian Space Agency

Wayfinding: A new Canadian science experiment for the International Space Station

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is investing in a new Canadian scientific experiment called "Wayfinding." The study will investigate the effects of space on astronauts' brains before and after their missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

The project was selected through a process involving the CSA and the International Space Life Sciences Working Group. The group comprises representatives from the CSA, NASA, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the German Aerospace Center, the French Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.

Full name of experiment

The effects of long duration spaceflight on human wayfinding: the behavioural and neural mechanisms (Wayfinding)

Principal Investigator

Dr. Giuseppe Iaria
University of Calgary

Description and objectives of the experiment

In space, without the cues provided by Earth's gravity, astronauts' bodies and brains adapt to various changes. One of those changes affects the astronauts' wayfinding skills, which can affect their performance during their first two to three weeks on the ISS, and may affect spatial orientation while performing complex tasks, like robotics.

Scheduled to begin in 2018, Dr. Iaria intends to study the impact of a long period in a microgravity environment on the behavioural and neurological mechanisms of wayfinding in astronauts. The study will also explore how long the astronauts' cognitive and neurological changes would persist following their return on Earth.

Conduct of the study

Dr. Iaria and his team are looking to recruit 12 astronauts from around the world. The researchers will conduct tests before and after space travel, including magnetic resonance imaging, neuropsychological evaluations, and assessments of wayfinding abilities.

Applications on Earth

The experiment's findings will help astronauts better prepare for and recover from spaceflight, and will teach us more about the specific contribution of vestibular and proprioceptive information on human wayfinding, and how the brain is responsible for such complex behaviour.

The study will also help us understand various medical conditions affecting movement, posture and spatial orientation skills of individuals on Earth suffering from vestibular dysfunctions, and contribute to their treatment. Characterizing the neurological changes following exposure to microgravity could also provide useful information for developing wayfinding programs for individuals undergoing neural degeneration as related to ageing.

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