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JAXA isolation chamber mimics life in space to test effects of stress on inhabitants

JAXA's isolation chamber facility meant to simulate life in space is seen, in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Jan. 13, 2016. (Mainichi)

TSUKUBA, Ibaraki -- What happens to a person physically and mentally when they are forced to live in a confined area for an extended period of time? The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) aims to find out with an isolation chamber designed to mimic the effects and stresses of living in space.

    The chamber is set up at JAXA's Tsukuba Space Center, and consists of two connected cylindrical rooms, each measuring 11 meters long by 3.8 meters wide by 2 meters tall. The chamber is modeled after Japan's "Kibo" research module at the International Space Station (ISS).

    The interior is roughly as spacious as the inside of two large buses. There are beds for eight people, similar in appearance to those of a "capsule hotel," and a work area for performing simple tasks experiment participants are given, but there are no windows or televisions, and the participants cannot bring in mobile phones or computers. Other than when they are in the shower and the restroom, the participants are constantly monitored on camera and their conversations are listened to.

    From early in the morning until late at night, the participants perform work as instructed by a supervisor outside the chamber, while their facial expressions and tone of voice are observed, and changes in the makeup of their blood and saliva are examined. Researchers are looking to see what kind of indicators best serve as a measure of stress.

    According to JAXA, Japan's astronauts aboard the ISS are seen about once every two weeks by a psychiatrist via video transmission to check on their stress levels. With the isolation chamber experiments, JAXA hopes to acquire a more scientific means of measuring astronaut stress, to assist in maintaining their mental health and aid in a possible future manned mission to Mars, expected to take at least three years in space to get there and back. JAXA was engaged in similar research between 2003 and 2005, but had to abandon it because of budget concerns. The current research represents a resumption of those studies from 11 years ago.

    The experiments with the isolation chamber are planned to be run a few times, through the current fiscal year. When JAXA sought applications for a group of eight men for a run of the experiment in February this year, they received applications from around 4,400 people, about 550 times the number of available slots, in a level of competition comparable to that of actual astronaut jobs. For the first experiment, the participants were in the chamber for 13 nights and were each paid 380,000 yen. While it is known that JAXA gave the participants tasks like group debates and robot construction, the agency has forbidden the participants from discussing the details, saying it could "affect the next experiment."

    Ken Takahashi, 43, an assistant professor at Okayama University's medical school, was a participant in JAXA's isolation testing back in 2004. He didn't get into any fights with the other two men he participated in the experiment with, but for long periods he was made to do dull assignments like single-digit addition and subtraction, and he recalls, "The two hour 'mental burden work' (such as those assignments) was particularly tough."

    He wore a watch-like device that told experimenters when he slept and when he was active. When he would lie down during his free time, he would be pestered by announcements of how many more minutes he had until he was to start on his next task.

    When the experiment ended, he immediately left the chamber. "I wanted to see the sun. The beauty of the evening sun cleansed my heart," he recalls. During the experiment, his only source of pleasure had been the warm meals that were served, but for the February experiment this year, in order to make the experiment more stressful, the meals were all switched over to vacuum-packed and other preserved foods.

    During long stays in space, a minor hitch can become the source of major strife. On the Russian space station Mir in 1997, an American and Russians aboard who had become neurotic from overwork got into an argument over how to clean the station, which became an obstacle to their work. Prolonged stays in space can also cause depression.

    Masanori Shinohara, associate professor of animal behavior at Teikyo University of Science, is well-versed in the effects of enclosed living spaces on organisms. He says, "If people (in a situation such as on a spacecraft) can feel gratified outside of work through, for example, conversations at meals, they will be able to restore smooth human relations and the project they are participating in will be more likely to succeed."

    On the other hand, Shinohara also notes that life in aquariums is said to lower the life spans of dolphins and killer whales by around two-thirds, and this may be due to the stress of living in confined quarters.

    University of Tsukuba professor of industrial psychiatry Ichiyo Matsuzaki says, "There are also problems with stress at evacuation shelters in times of disaster and at temporary housing for disaster survivors. I hope we can use the findings from these experiments to develop ways to closely understand the psychological state of disaster survivors and support them."

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