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Autonomous Behavioral Health Countermeasures for Spaceflight

Principal Investigator:
Jay C. Buckey, M.D.

Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth

The Virtual Space Station (VSS) is a suite of behavioral health countermeasures developed over several years with NSBRI support. The VSS includes conflict management training, depression treatment, and stress management modules. To modify and customize these behavioral health countermeasures for astronaut use, the VSS programs will be evaluated in a analog environments such as Antarctica and HI-SEAS that include the elements of isolation and confinement found in long-duration spaceflight.

Additionally, an integrated behavioral health assessment will be added to the existing content to determine the need for behavioral health countermeasures and guide the astronaut user accordingly. Also, the VSS conflict resolution content will be expanded. To promote psychological well-being, the software will be modified to incorporate virtual reality (VR), including a VR-based relaxation and attention restoration system, which can provide a fully confidential, positive, immersive experience for astronauts.

The final product will offer an integrated user interface that can guide a user with minor problems to enjoyable countermeasures, such as VR relaxation, but will also have validated content to treat more severe problems such as depression.

NASA Taskbook Entry

Technical Summary

The project has 3 main aims, as follows:

Aim #1: Customize the Virtual Space Station (VSS) program for use by astronauts by evaluating the program in isolated environments (e.g. Antarctica, HI-SEAS) and collecting detailed information on program use, including user choices, ease of navigation, usability and acceptability. The VSS program can provide unique insights into the behavioral health problems isolated and confined teams face. The depression program collects detailed information about users’ engagement and interaction with the program, as well as users’ subjective assessments of their progress, the details of the action plans and therapeutic homework they create during the session, and self-reported depression symptoms at each session. This information provides a unique insight into the problem-solving process in an isolated environment, which could be used to tailor the content to isolated/confined individuals. We hypothesize that we will receive unique information from the individual user-generated problem lists, potential solutions, action plans, etc. from participants in isolated and confined environments that can be used to improve the depression program for spaceflight use.

Aim #2: Modify the existing VSS conflict management program to add enhanced conflict resolution content and an integrated behavioral health assessment. To meet Conflict resolution content will be developed in collaboration with Jeff Weiss (founder of the West Point Negotiation Project, and Tuck School at Dartmouth faculty member). Conflict resolution content will be provided as interactive, multimedia scenarios, as well as in interactive exercises. Al Holland, Ph.D. (operational psychologist at NASA/JSC) will assist with the development of the integrated behavioral health assessment. Content will be designed and programmed in collaboration with the DALI lab at Dartmouth headed by Lorie Loeb.

Aim #3: Enhance the VSS program to include a mood enhancement system that allows users to experience immersive relaxing situations using virtual reality. Immersive virtual reality can provide positive experiences to promote psychosocial well-being, and potentially restore cognitive effectiveness. This relaxation technique does not currently exist in the VSS. We will use a VR headset (Oculus Rift) and 3D software (off the shelf and custom built) to create the content. Users will identify locations that produce positive emotions (e.g. calm, happy, energized). Also, high definition renderings of natural settings (e.g. forest, beach) will be created. The Dartmouth’s Digital Arts (DALI) lab team, will take a series of high-resolution 3D videos and incorporate them into the software (Unity plus custom plug ins) to create an immersive, interactive experience. With the new, wide-field-of-view, Oculus Rift headset, the user will feel as if they are in the space, and can move their heads to see the space in 360 degrees. Using heart rate, skin conductance, and other stress metrics, we will analyze the efficacy of such a system and customize it to meet the needs of the user.

Earth Applications

Behavioral health issues such as conflict, stress, and depression are common. Autonomous, confidential and easy-to-use countermeasures for these issues are likely to find multiple uses outside of NASA.