Neurolab And The Decade Of The Brain

The $99-million Neurolab came about following then-President George H.W. Bush's declaration of the 1990s as the 'Decade of the Brain', in recognition of advancements made in humanity's understanding of its basic structure and function. The 26 investigations in the Spacelab module for the two-week mission were broadly grouped into eight sets: four of which used Columbia's crew as test subjects, while the others focused on mice, snails, crickets and fish. The mission attracted participation from the United States' National Institutes of Health, NASA and several international sponsors, including ESA and the Canadian, German, French and Japanese space agencies.

Key questions still required answers, despite 37 years of experience of sending humans into space, including the mystery of how astronauts adapt so quickly to the weightless environment, even though all of our basic movements were learned, since birth, in the presence of gravity. Moreover, physiologists were intrigued to learn how gravity-sensitive organs, such as the inner ear, cardiovascular system and muscles, cope in space and how astronauts' sleep patterns and biological clocks were affected as the Sun 'rose' and 'set' 16 times in each 24-hour period.

It was as part of these studies that Columbia's animal passengers entered the equation. How, researchers wondered, would their inner ear mechanisms - so vital for balance and movement - change in microgravity and, furthermore, what of animals actually born in space? Would their gravity-sensitive organs develop differently to their Earth-born counterparts and, if so, in what ways? The ultimate question was: Must gravity necessarily be present at the point in an animal's life when basic locomotion skills such as walking and climbing are learned? The STS-90 crew would also participate in this research, through studies before, during and after the flight.

''By involving a broad group of national and international scientific research agencies, Neurolab has drawn together outstanding specialist-investigators to study the brain,'' said William Heetderks of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one of the mission's project managers. ''This is an ambitious and unprecedented undertaking that will allow us to greatly expand our knowledge of how the nervous system develops in, and adapts to, microgravity. We will be able to observe important changes on a cellular level in muscles and the nervous system that will improve our understanding of muscle development and motor behaviour. Prior to Neurolab, these questions were unexplored and unanswered because they require spaceflight and weightlessness as a component of study design.'' Arnauld Nicogossian, NASA's head of life sciences, added that this information could then be applied to future missions - with upcoming six-month increments on the International Space Station being the most immediate concern - and help to improve the lives of people on the ground. Knowledge gained from space missions proved particularly useful in the latter case, because many of the physical obstacles confronted by astronauts mimic the kind of ailments associated with ageing and major diseases on Earth.

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