March 23, 2023
Eric Henrikson

A new study is taking a closer look at the role brain training could play on future space missions. Published in January, the NASA-commissioned pilot study used a brain training app called BrainHQ to test five high performing Johnson Spaceflight Center employees.

The pilot study used not only the base BrainHQ tests, but also tests designed by NASA that specifically target people like astronauts.

The study found that four of the five participants saw 78% improvement in performance on the app. They also performed 19% better on the tests designed by NASA.

KXAN spoke with Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, the developers of BrainHQ. He gave details on the study, what’s next and how an app like BrainHQ could help astronauts traveling long distance in space.

You can read that interview below or watch an edited version in the video above.

Eric Henrikson, KXAN News: Henry, tell me about the research y’all just did?

Dr. Henry Mahncke, Posit Science: What we at Posit Science have done is we’ve built a fantastic brain training program series of brain exercises that rewires the brain to help it be faster and more accurate. That improves cognitive function.

The research that just came out is that NASA came to us and said, ‘Hey, cognitive performance is really important for astronauts, they need to be at their best. And hey, we might be sending them on long space missions where maintaining brain health is important. We’d like to do a pilot test to brain HQ to see ‘hey, is this going to be helpful to us as we think about astronaut training?’

Henrikson: How does BrainHQ work?

Mahncke: These are software based brain training exercises. You can do them on a computer or a tablet or a phone. In this case, NASA use a tablet to do the brain training exercises.

These brain training exercises, you know, they’re not like an essay test, right? We’re not like teaching tips and tricks about how to memorize things better. What they are is visual or auditory exercises, so some on the screen, some with headphones.

What you’ll be doing is you’ll be hearing or seeing things that typically are getting faster and faster as you do these various cognitive tests correctly. And what they do is they push your brain to the limit to make it as fast and accurate as possible. Because it turns out that making your brain fast and accurate, Well, that’s the key to brain health.

Henrikson: What were the results of the study?

Mahncke: NASA wanted to do a first pilot study to say, ‘hey, this could be could this be helpful for astronauts?’

So what they did is they identified five people who were a lot like astronauts, but not astronauts. These are people who actually worked at the Johnson Space Center down in your neck of the woods.

They had the right demographics, the right age, they’re all fairly high performing technical workers, but they’re not actually the folks going into space. They have these these folks do BrainHQ.

What they did is they train their brain on BrainHQ for six weeks. They did three sessions per week, about an hour of brain training per session, and they got measured before and afterwards.

The way they got measured is that NASA has got a special set of cognitive tests that are used for measuring very high performing cognition for folks with very high performing cognitive skills.

A lot of the time we think about cognitive tests, we’re thinking about people who maybe are getting older, or maybe they’ve had memory loss. And you know, they can be hard, because we need to make them be sensitive for folks whose brains aren’t working very well.

But NASA has actually developed a special set of cognitive tests that are for people who actually can remember a lot of things and are very fast and very high performing. So they use this test. And what’s exciting about it is that, hey, the folks in the study, they got better at the brain training exercises, which we kind of expected, right, they should get better at the things they practice on. But they also got 19% better on this NASA high performing cognitive test.

Which showed that we can improve cognitive performance in very high performing people, you know, just like people who are at their peak of their physical fitness actually do lots of physical training to get even better, we can take people who are really high cognitive performing, and we can make them even better.

That can help them when they’re doing the world’s most demanding jobs out there in space, or that can help them stay healthy if they’re on an 18 month mission to Mars.

Henrikson: So the idea is you can give an iPad or tablet of some sort to an astronaut with BrainHQ or a similar app on it, and go here do this every day. And by the time they get to Mars, their cognitive functions have increased?

Mahncke: There’s two uses for it. The first is what you might think of as high performance training before a mission, right.

The other way we think about brain training for astronauts is maintaining brain health during long missions.

Henrikson: This is a pilot study, it was a small study with only five people in this study. Is there a next step where you expand the study to more?

Mahncke: That’s exactly right. So NASA is organizing that big next step. And you know, a couple thoughts for the next step, which is, hey, obviously, more people, right? That would be in a very important part of it. Obviously, a control group, right?

You know, BrainHQ has been involved in many trials, where we compare BrainHQ to, for example, ordinary video games, or ordinary cognitive stimulation and trial after trial, we see that, hey, there’s something special about the way we’ve built these exercises that make them outperform just kind of keeping your brain busy.

But that would be an important thing to show in the next study as well. And then maybe some brain imaging, right?

We know the kinds of changes that happen when our brains in space, can we look at those for people who are in the brain kind of before on the ground before and after brain training and say, ‘Hey, we’re improving those kinds of microstructure, the brain or these various biomarkers of brain health.’

And of course, the next step after that is, hey, let’s let’s work with actual astronauts and and show that we’re going to help them out in the same way.