Virtual reality to the rescue?

Healthcare organisations all over Europe are getting wise to the applications of virtual reality (VR) in mental health. Researchers in the US, meanwhile, are exploring the effects it can have on isolation and confinement – the very conditions astronauts encounter in space.

When planning a mission to Mars, focusing on the technology and logistics of the expedition – and even the nutrition, comfort and physical fitness of the astronauts – are no-brainers. But their mental health – just as important – hasn’t really been considered… until now.

“On Earth, having a couple of bad days in a row probably won’t endanger anyone,” said Nicholas C Salamon, researcher at The Ohio State University in the US, in an interview with Tech Radar. “In space, however, an astronaut suffering a decrement in mental health could make a mistake that ends the mission or worse, the lives of the crew.”

One of the most significant related experiments taking place on Earth at the moment is NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog, also known as HERA. It’s a closed habitat at the Johnson Space Center in the US, which looks at the effects that confinement, isolation and working in remote conditions have on humans.

The programme looks at five categories related to the pressures that astronauts experience as they travel through space – gravity fields, hostile/closed environments, space radiation, distance from Earth and isolation/confinement. 

Isolation and confinement are top of the list: “The more confined and isolated humans are, the more likely they are to develop behavioural or cognitive conditions, and psychiatric disorders,” the NASA website explains. That’s why it’s been vital for NASA to study the behaviour and mental health of people in confined spaces, like HERA, for a long time to address some of these issues. 

Salamon has produced a research paper exploring the ways VR could positively impact the mental health of astronauts on long missions, including its capacity to reduce stress: “Stress management will be crucial on long space missions, and initial research shows that exposure to simulated natural environments can have a calming effect after stressors.”

The versatility of VR, however, means it can also be used for relaxation, stimulation, socialisation and many other things, says Salamon. “VR could also be used to combat boredom through immersive games or movies, and it could be used in a collaborative environment with other astronauts to create a social experience.” 

And, thanks to platforms like Facebook Spaces and vTime, developments in social VR as a means to connect people at great distances also look promising, especially given advances in haptic touch technology. This could allow astronauts to ‘touch’ their friends, partners and families from millions of miles away.

Related information

Applications of Virtual Reality for Crew Mental Health in Extended Duration Space Missions

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