A new device has passed the 'vomit comet' test, which means it can be calibrated to measure blood flow in zero gravity. The gadget could sneak a glimpse inside an astronaut's brain as well.
According to a report in New Scientist, Gary Strangman, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is leading development of the non-invasive scanner, which fires weak pulses of near-infrared light into the brain, then reads back what's reflected.
Called near-infrared optical spectroscopy, the approach equates changes in blood flow to brain activity, much like a functional MRI scanner.
Aboard a mission, the device could help explain why astronauts sometimes suffer from depression, as well as provide an objective gauge of an astronaut's mental state.
The scanner has already garnered 400,000 dollars in NASA funding, but to receive more - and eventually, make it aboard a space mission, it must first pass a series of technological hurdles.
In June, researchers tested the device in Florida on an aircraft that achieves periods of weightlessness by flying in steep parabolas.
The flight showed the device works outside controlled lab settings, and crucially, that it works in weightlessness.
That's important, because without gravity to pull it down and out of the brain, blood tends to pool inside the brain.
That could potentially confound any technique that relies on measuring minute changes in blood flow.
"We may no longer be able to see what we see with gravity on Earth pulling all that blood out of our head," Strangman told New Scientist.
The 'vomit comet' flight revealed that the device can be calibrated to measure blood flow in zero gravity, confirming previous tests in Strangman's Boston laboratory that simulated microgravity conditions by laying volunteers on a table that tilts downwards by a few degrees.
"We may not have to do every experiment from here on out in a parabolic flight," said Strangman. "We can use something a little bit simpler and little bit less expensive than a 5000 dollars flight to simulate weightlessness," he added.
However, he isn't ruling out further tests aboard the vomit comet, and he might even serve as his own guinea pig.