London, July 3 : Scientists would now be able to look for signs of stress in astronauts, thanks to a portable brain scanner could study brain activity, which makes it a sort of a breathalyzer for the brain.
The brain scanner works by sending weak pulses of near-infrared light into the brain, then reading back the reflected wavelengths.
According to a report in New Scientist, the device has been created to help astronauts, whose stress levels reach an all time high because of jam-packed schedules in space.
Mission control could use the device to remotely monitor astronauts for signs of brain injury, depression and even mental fatigue that could compromise their ability to make a critical repair of equipment.
"If you had a magic cap to say, 'Are you good to go?' that might be valuable," said Jonathan Clark of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) in Houston, Texas, US, which funds the work. "Think of it like a breathalyser for the brain," he added.
Unlike the hulking, tunnel-like MRI machines that peer into the brain with super-strong magnets, the space brain scanner resembles a large remote control tethered to a Velcro headband by long, thin wires.
Yet the technology - called near-infrared optical spectroscopy - works something like functional MRI, which equates changes in blood flow to brain activity.
In lieu of a magnet, the optical scanner sends weak pulses of near-infrared light into the brain, then reads back the reflected wavelengths.
"That reveals how much oxygen is in the blood, a gauge of brain activity," said Gary Strangman, a psychiatrist leading development of the scanner, which he and others are already using on Earth-bound patients.
Currently, Strangman's focus is on diagnosing and understanding depression in orbit.
Astronauts frequently report feeling despondent, and a recent four-year study of the crew aboard the International Space Station found signs of mild depression and mental fatigue.
"People do change in space," said Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco, US, who conducted the study of space station crew members.
"If you can demonstrate their cognition changes, as well as gets slowed down in some way, then it would be very useful to have a tool to assess this," he added.
In orbit, the scanner might look for changes in brain activity in regions that have been previously linked to depression, according to Strangman.
It could also be used to sense brain damage caused by environmental problems - such as low oxygen or carbon monoxide - in the shuttle or space station.
It might also help avoid close calls - and even catastrophe - by picking up on signs of mental stress before they're apparent to an astronaut or the crew.