There is increasing interest in the effects of microgravity on cognitive processing, particularly as it relates to the potential for human space travel. While findings to date are quite inconsistent, studies reporting a decrement in cognitive performance have generally not been able to distinguish between the direct influence of microgravity, and any associated influence of stress. Furthermore, the currently available findings are primarily based on behavioral observations, and there is a need to better understand the underlying neurophysiological responses. The current study aimed to determine the effects of microgravity on neurophysiological processing during a mental arithmetic task (executive function). During the normal- and microgravity phases of a parabolic flight, four levels of a mental arithmetic task were presented on a touchscreen tablet. The latency between the appearance of the problem and the participants' response was identified as reaction time. In addition visual evoked potentials N1 and P2 were determined using an active EEG system and analyzed using source localization algorithms. Results showed an increase in reaction time with increasing levels of task difficulty. During the most complex levels, reaction time was significantly reduced during microgravity. This observation was independent of previous parabolic flight experience as well as the use of anti-motion-sickness medication. P2 amplitude decrease during microgravity was concomitant to a related involvement of the superior frontal and medial frontal gyrus. It is concluded that cortical processes are enhanced during microgravity, and that previously reported impairments in cognitive performance are likely attributable to increased stress rather than weightlessness itself.
Keywords: Cognitive processing; EEG; ERP; P2; Parabolic flight; Reaction time.
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