As NASA plans for long-duration space exploration by the 2020s, faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Stony Brook University will investigate questions about astronaut health and performance on these missions to near-Earth asteroids and to Mars. The Department has been awarded two grants funded by NASA’s Human Research Program.
The first is a three-year grant for the research project “Asynchronous Techniques for the Delivery of Empirically Supported Psychotherapies,” with Assistant Professor Adam Gonzalez as principal investigator and Research Assistant Professor Brittain Mahaffey, Associate Professor Roman Kotov and Distinguished Professor Arie Kaufman (Department of Computer Science) as co-investigators. The other grant, “Personality and Biological Predictors of Resiliency to Chronic Stress among High-Achieving Adults,” is a one-year project with Research Assistant Professor Greg Perlman as principal investigator and Kotov and Clinical Professor Greg Hajcak (Department of Psychology) as co-investigators.
On deep-space missions, problems with stress, anxiety, interpersonal issues and fatigue are likely to occur and may require intervention. In the current space program, the farthest humans are sent is to the International Space Station, and real-time radio communication is still possible. Astronauts are required to have biweekly sessions with their ground-based psychiatrist or psychologist. But with extended travel distances, communication lags of up to 45 minutes are likely, so real-time communication to provide psychotherapy will not be possible. Gonzalez’s project focuses on evaluating technologies for delivering psychotherapy to astronauts when real-time communication is not possible.
The team’s goal is to determine how to bridge this communication gap so astronauts can conduct long-duration space missions with their physical and psychological health intact. “First we have to find the best treatments out there that have been tested for different behavioral health problems like anxiety and depression,” said Gonzalez. “We will also look at the different methods that have been tested for delivering therapy support via asynchronous communication, whether that be text-based communication or video messaging. Then we will put them together in a randomized trial to test different types of treatment platforms against one another to see what is most effective.”
“NASA has existing lines of research where they’ve looked at different computer-delivered, self-management packages to treat stress and anxiety, but the missing piece is the human support in addition to these tools that are available to them,” said Mahaffey. “So the focus for this project is how are we going to get them that human support? What is the best way when there is that lag time?”
The success of these long-duration space flights depends in large part on how astronauts adapt to chronic stress. The objective of Perlman’s research project is to identify key psychological and neurobiological characteristics of people who adapt successfully to chronic stress. The team will study psychological and biological characteristics of high-achieving adults in highly demanding contexts during a period of several months. At the end of the study they will identify specific characteristics that best predict successful adaptation to stress. The knowledge gained from this research will help NASA improve its astronaut selection protocol as well as advance understanding of the psychological processes that govern resiliency and vulnerability to chronic stress.
“Our project examines how people adapt to chronic stress, and explores how best to predict who will respond well to chronic stress and who will not,” said Perlman. “We search for key predictors of successful adaptation to stress among a combination of different factors such as personality traits, sleep patterns, and problem solving skills. We also examine EEG which is recorded while participants react and respond to computer-generated stimuli. Then, we will follow up with each person after a period of several months to see how they are doing.”
Both teams will use a group of “astronaut-like” participants for their studies, namely well-educated, relatively healthy individuals who are under work-related stress, such as medical residents and post-docs primarily in STEM fields. If you are interested in participating in these studies, please contact Fran Ferayorni at (631) 632-3084.
NASA’s Human Resource Program quantifies crew health and performance risks during spaceflight and develops strategies that mission planners and system developers can use to monitor and mitigate the risks. These studies often lead to advancements in understanding and treating illnesses in patients on Earth.
About the Researchers
Gonzalez is the Founding Director of the Mind Body Clinical Research Center at the Stony Brook University Neurosciences Institute. In addition to this NASA project, he is the principal investigator of several federal grants, including a randomized clinical trial (RCT) to evaluate the Relaxation Response Resiliency Program (a mind-body treatment program) to reduce PTSD and respiratory symptoms among responders to the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster, and a RCT to evaluate a resiliency-training program for active disaster responders. Gonzalez is a clinical psychologist and an expert in the study and treatment of co-occurring psychological and medical disorders.
Mahaffey is program director of an RCT aimed at investigating the efficacy of a stress management and resiliency training intervention among WTC responders with PTSD. She is also the Director of Women’s Services at the Mind Body Clinical Research Center. She is a clinical psychologist with expertise in the study and treatment of anxiety, mood and stress disorders. She has extensive training in the delivery and evaluation of empirically supported treatments for anxiety, depression, stress and emotion regulation disorders.
Perlman is director of the Adolescent Emotion and Personality Traits project at Stony Brook. His research utilizes electrophysiological and neural imaging techniques to elucidate the neural substrates that underlie psychopathology, especially depression and anxiety. He specializes in the areas of clinical psychophysiology, adolescent psychopathology and quantitative methods.
Kotov’s main areas of focus are anxiety and mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and personality problems. His work involves refining the classification of mental disorders and studying the vulnerabilities to these disorders: genes, neural circuits and personality traits. He studies adults, adolescents and special populations, including responders to the WTC disaster. He is currently principal investigator of two NIH-funded projects.
Hajcak is director of the Center for Affective Neuroscience of Depression and Anxiety at Stony Brook. He uses psychophysiological approaches to studying emotion and cognition, anxiety disorders and their treatment.
Kaufman is the chair of the Department of Computer Science and the director of the Center of Visual Computing at Stony Brook. He has been internationally recognized for his contributions to information technology and specifically to visualization and graphics.
— Lynne Roth