Penn Medicine Team Develops Cognitive Test Battery to Assess the Impact of Long Duration Spaceflights on Astronauts’ Brain Function

The first astronaut is scheduled to take the battery on the International Space Station on November 28

HOUSTON and PHILADELPHIA – Space is one of the most demanding and unforgiving environments. Human exploration of space requires astronauts to maintain consistently high levels of cognitive performance to ensure mission safety and success, and prevent potential errors and accidents. Despite the importance of cognitive performance for mission success, little is known about how cognition is affected by prolonged spaceflight, and what aspects of cognition are primarily affected.

Now, Penn Medicine researchers are poised to help
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
close this knowledge gap. They have
developed a cognitive test battery, known as
Cognition, for the National Space Biomedical
Research Institute (NSBRI)
to measure the impact
of typical spaceflight stressors (like microgravity,
radiation, confinement and isolation, exposure to
elevated levels of CO2, and sleep loss) on
cognitive performance.

This computer-based test has already been tested
by astronauts on Earth. It will be performed for
the first time in a pilot study on the International Space Station (ISS) on November 28.

The Penn team, led by Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, MSc, assistant professor of sleep and chronobiology in
Psychiatry, David F. Dinges, PhD, professor and
chief, Division of Sleep and Chronobiology,
Department of Psychiatry, and Ruben C. Gur, PhD,
professor of Psychology, Director of
Neuropsychology, the Brain Behavior Laboratory, and
the Center for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry, developed
Cognition as a brief and sensitive computerized
neurocognitive test battery for spaceflight.

With its 10 tests, it is more comprehensive than
NASA’s current test battery. “Cognition addresses,
among other areas, spatial orientation, emotion
recognition, and risk decision making, which we
believe are essential for the success of
exploration-type space missions,” said Basner.

The team chose tests with well-validated testing
principles and whose link to cerebral networks has
already been established with functional
neuroimaging, such as MRI. The tests were then
optimized for astronauts.

“We know that astronauts are highly motivated and
usually outperform the general population,” said
Basner. “The difficulty of the tests therefore had
to be tailored to astronauts, to avoid both
boredom and frustration.”

The team generated 15 unique versions of the 10
tests to allow for repeated administration in

Cognition is currently administered through a
series of tasks via laptops and tablets. Penn
researchers were recently tasked to generate a
Standardized Behavioral Measures Tool for NASA’s
Behavioral Health and Performance program that
will include Cognition.

The three Penn study authors are also participating
with Cognition in a NASA effort reported earlier
this year to study the molecular, physiological
and psychological effects of spaceflight on the
human body by comparing identical twins
, evidencing
the need for a comprehensive cognitive test battery
for spaceflight.

The other Penn researchers involved in the effort
include Raquel E. Gur, MD, PhD, Allison Port,
Sarah McGuire, PhD, Jad Nasrini, Adam Savitt, and
Tyler Moore, PhD.

Graham Scott, Ph.D., NSBRI’s Chief Scientist,
noted that “long duration, deep space missions
will undoubtedly challenge astronaut crew members
in unexpected ways – including testing their
emotional and psychosocial resilience and
unconditional teamwork. Neurobehavioral risks to
the crew and mission can be mitigated by
developing, testing and deploying highly
sensitive and specific tools, such as Cognition.”

The study was supported by the National Space
Biomedical Research Institute through NASA
NCC 9-58, NASA through NNX14AH98G, NNX14AH27G,
NNX14AM81G, NIH through R01NR00428, the Office of
Naval Research through N00014-11-1-0361, and the
McDonnell Foundation.


About Penn Medicine
Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading
academic medical centers, dedicated to the related
missions of medical education, biomedical research,and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked
among the top five medical schools in the United
States for the past 17 years, according to U.S.
News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented
medical schools. The School is consistently among
the nation’s top recipients of funding from the
National Institutes of Health, with $392 million
awarded in the 2013 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s
patient care facilities include: The Hospital of
the University of Pennsylvania — recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; Chester County Hospital; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital — the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd
Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and
health through a variety of community-based
programs and activities. In fiscal year 2013,
Penn Medicine provided $814 million to benefit our

Established in 1997 through a NASA competition,
NSBRI is headquartered at Baylor College of
Medicine, in the Texas Medical Center and is a
consortium of twelve leading biomedical
institutions. NSBRI, a 501(c) (3) organization
partnered with NASA, is studying the health risks
related to long-duration spaceflight and
developing the technologies and countermeasures
needed for human space exploration missions. The
Institute’s science, technology and career
development projects take place at approximately
60 institutions across the United States. For
more information, please visit


Greg Richter (Penn Medicine)
(215) 614-1937

Graham B.I. Scott, Ph.D. (NSBRI)
Tel: (713) 798-7227