Apr 09 2021

Dr Elisa Raffaella Ferre, Department of Psychology, has recently written an article for The Conversation about Astronauts on Mars Missions suffering cognitive problems. We recently caught up with Elisa to find out more about what causes this and how extreme these problems can be.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Department of Psychology?

I joined Royal Holloway in 2015 and my research focuses on the vestibular system - a sophisticated organ in our inner ear. The vestibular system has been traditionally considered an organ for balance, self-motion and orientation, but my research has led to a reconceptualization of the function of the vestibular system in human cognition. I have demonstrated that vestibular–multisensory interactions are crucial for several perceptual and cognitive processes, including the representation of gravity. I am currently investigating how the human brain represents gravity and uses it to guide behaviour. In parallel, since 2019, I have been the UG Lead at the Psychology Department and in this role, together with my colleagues, we have been working on delivery excellent teaching to our students.

2. You recently wrote an article for The Conversation about Astronauts on Mars Missions suffering cognitive problems, can you explain what causes these?

Deep-space missions to Mars are the next great leap in space exploration. However, space is an hostile environment for human life. Exposure to non-terrestrial gravities leads to dramatic structural and functional changes in the human physiology, including alterations in the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and neural systems. Dealing with “microgravity” (weightlessness) is extremely difficult for the human brain. Structural brain changes have been observed in astronauts after returning from the International Space Station (ISS), including a reduced connectivity between areas on the layer of the brain, the cortex, and those inside. How these changes affect behaviour is not yet fully understood, but we have recently demonstrated that people exposed to non-terrestrial gravities have difficulties in perception and cognition, including a substantial impairment in decision-making.

3. How extreme can these problems be?

It is hard to say; adjusting to microgravity requires time and effort. More than 70% of astronauts suffer from dizziness, vertigo, headaches, fatigue and nausea. Consequences can range from mild discomfort to severe cognitive incapacitation. For this reason, no extra-vehicular activities or space-walks are allowed during the first few days of space missions. Deep-space missions will present much greater challenges to human health and performance than the challenges currently faced. Unprecedented distance, duration, isolation and increasingly autonomous operations will be combined with long exposure to a different kind of gravity to Earth. Understanding how gravity shapes human cognition has never been more pressing.

4. What inspired you to research neuroscience, and particularly the relationship between gravity and the brain?

I remember watching the NASA footage of the Apollo missions, and being struck by how astronauts were struggling in making the most simple actions such as walking on the Lunar surface. Our brain has an amazing ability to adapt to the demands of the external environment. However, space is the ultimate frontier. All living organisms have evolved under terrestrial gravity. It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental and ubiquitous aspect of life on Earth than gravity. Gravity is the most persistent sensory signal in our brain, yet it has been largely neglected in experimental psychology and neuroscience. I simply wanted to understand more about it.

5. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway?

The openness to innovative, risky and multidisciplinary research is my favourite thing at Royal Holloway.

6. How do you like to spend your time outside of work?

I practice yoga and meditation, I read a lot – I am a big fan of Japanese novels –, and I am learning to knit.