University professors Kent Hecker, Gord Binsted and Olav Krigolson take time out for a photo at the Mars habitat in Hawaii in December 2019. (Contributed)

Former Shuswap residents head to Mars habitat for brain research

Fast, mobile analysis could determine if brains of doctors, pilots, others, fatigued

When Olav Krigolson was five years old, he told his mom he was going to be an astronaut.

Turns out, he wasn’t too far off.

In December, Krigolson and Kent Hecker, who both grew up in Salmon Arm, took part in a unique trip to ‘outer space’ to measure how fatigue affects the brain function of astronauts. The men were part of a five-member Canadian research team taking part in a project on a Mars simulation on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The site is called the HI-SEAS or Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation and is used by space agencies.

There they donned bulky spacesuits and lived in the Hab, or Mars habitat, a golf ball-like dome, for eight days, collecting data, eating freeze-dried food and, at times during their 16-hour days, venturing outside on exploratory trips of lava flows.

“So if you’d told us both in high school we’d get PhDs in neuroscience and be going to Mars together, we would have fallen over laughing,” remarked Krigolson.

“It was awesome,” enthused Hecker. “We got to put on space suits and explore lava caves. We reverted back to being kids again.”

The purpose of the mission, which was spearheaded by Krigolson, was actually a proof of concept or test run of brain-testing software that is both mobile and fast, as opposed to a typical EEG (electroencephalogram).

It uses the commercially available Muse EEG headband which evaluates electrical activity in the brain.

Then, via software developed by Krigolson’s lab at the University of Victoria, brain waves are translated into scores measuring characteristics such as fatigue.

To do that, the researchers would play simple games on an iPad three times per day to test their brain function.

Although both men have PhDs in neuroscience, Krigolson says he’s really a mathematician.

“I wrote the algorithm that takes the brain wave data and gives you fatigue scores,” he explained.

Accompanying them were PhD students Chad Williams and Tom Ferguson, as well as Gord Binsted, Dean of the Health and Social Development Faculty at UBCO in Kelowna, who was instrumental in the mission.

Binsted’s sister Kim is a professor at the University of Hawaii and runs the Mars simulation for NASA.

One highlight came about when the heating in the Hab broke down.

In order to empty the dome to facilitate the repair, the researchers were told a solar flare had occurred and they would have to go down into a lava tube to escape the radiation.

One of the students mentioned he had Star Wars, the movie, on his laptop, so there they were, in a lava tube, watching Star Wars.

“Now that, I believe, is a fairly unique experience,” said Krigolson.

Read more: Students inspired by space

Read more: Astronaut thrills kids

Read more: Salmon Arm Tennis Club’s indoor facility moving at smooth clip

Hecker graduated from SAS in 1987, Krigolson a year later. Although they were friends as youngsters and both played basketball in high school, they lost touch until about eight years ago.

Hecker, whose father Ken was a principal and basketball coach in the school district, played basketball for five years for the University of Lethbridge and is now a professor at the University of Calgary.

“He was always a jock and remains a jock,” smiles Ken.

Kent works in veterinary medicine and human medicine research, with a focus on high stress on brain functions, similar to the astronaut testing.

While going through scholarly papers connected to his work, he saw Krigolson’s name.

He contacted him and they reconnected, having now worked together on many projects.

“Very rarely do you get to do something so exciting and so cool,” said Hecker.

Their hope is that the mobile EEG and its software, which can evaluate brain function in just five or six minutes, will be used on a longer simulated mission with real astronauts, and then eventually in space.

So far so good, judging by Day 7 from a blog Krigolson created for the mission.

“I have reviewed our findings multiple times now and all I can say is we can do it — we can accurately track brain health and performance. In this case, as we have shown here — we can track changes in cognitive fatigue with precisions,” he wrote.

“The possibilities are endless — imagine testing doctors before they operate, pilots before they fly, even businessmen before they make crucial decisions. We can do this now — the science is solid and clear.”

It’s already being used to assess concussions in sports. A new project at Krigolson’s UVIC lab is looking at Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Both men express how thrilled they are at having taken part in the project.

Krigolson sums it up like this: “I won’t lie. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of, ever.”

Adds Hecker: “It’s incredible that two kids from Salmon Arm got to do this.”


marthawickett@saobserver.net
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Just Posted

Regional district gives birth to Shuswap Economic Development Society

Twelve directors appointed at Columbia Shuswap Regional District’s September meeting

Salmon Arm hockey enthusiasts recognized by regional association

Minor hockey association adds its congratulations to player, coach

Volatile enrolment leads to loss of teaching staff at three North Okanagan-Shuswap schools

Three quarters of students using online learning program expected to return to class

B.C. reports 91 new cases as officials remain worried over ‘clusters of COVID-19

There have now been a total of 8,395 cases in B.C. since the pandemic began

Kiera Bourque’s sentence ‘an embarrassment’: family of deceased Penticton teen

Bourque was sentenced to one year in prison for her role in the 2017 death of Devon Blackmore

Kelowna RCMP seize drugs, weapons from downtown residence

Search warrant was in relation to an active criminal investigation into suspected drug trafficking

‘Won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving:’ Trudeau says COVID-19 2nd wave underway

In all, COVID-19 has killed about 9,250 people in Canada

COLUMN: COVID-19 statistics are the stories of people

This pandemic is ultimately about people, not just about numbers

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

EDITORIAL: Clearing the smoke

Wildfires have resulted in heavy smoke and poor air quality

Kelowna man’s child porn collection ‘traversed the spectrum of depravity,’ court hears

Terry Krock was caught in possession of between 7,000 and 12,000 child porn files

COVID-19 exposure at Merritt pub

The exposure happened on Sept. 19 at the pub of the Coldwater Hotel

Most Read