Background: Sustained high-level cognitive performance is of paramount importance for the success of space missions, which involve environmental, physiological, and psychological stressors that may affect brain functions. Despite subjective symptom reports of cognitive fluctuations in spaceflight, the nature of neurobehavioral functioning in space has not been clarified.
Methods: We developed a computerized cognitive test battery (Cognition) that has sensitivity to multiple cognitive domains and was specifically designed for the high-performing astronaut population. Cognition consists of 15 unique forms of 10 neuropsychological tests that cover a range of cognitive domains, including emotion processing, spatial orientation, and risk decision making. Cognition is based on tests known to engage specific brain regions as evidenced by functional neuroimaging. Here we describe the first normative and acute total sleep deprivation data on the Cognition test battery as well as several efforts underway to establish the validity, sensitivity, feasibility, and acceptability of Cognition.
Results: Practice effects and test-retest variability differed substantially between the 10 Cognition tests, illustrating the importance of normative data that both reflect practice effects and differences in stimulus set difficulty in the population of interest. After one night without sleep, medium to large effect sizes were observed for 3 of the 10 tests addressing vigilant attention (Cohen's d = 1.00), cognitive throughput (d = 0.68), and abstract reasoning (d = 0.65).
Conclusions: In addition to providing neuroimaging-based novel information on the effects of spaceflight on a range of cognitive functions, Cognition will facilitate comparing the effects of ground-based analogues to spaceflight, increase consistency across projects, and thus enable meta-analyses.