The influence of exercise on prefrontal cortex activity and cognitive performance during a simulated space flight to Mars (MARS500)

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With respect to the plans of national and internationals space agencies to send people to Mars or Moon, long-term isolation studies are performed to learn about the psycho-physiological and psycho-social limitations of such missions. From June 3rd 2010 to November 4th 2011 six participants lived under totally isolated and confined conditions in the MARS500 habitat located in Moscow. Despite the possibility to mimic the condition of space travel, this study allowed for experimental conditions under very reliable and traceable conditions.

As exercise is widely discussed to have a positive impact on neuro-cognitive performance, this study aimed to test the effect of different exercise protocol (endurance/strength orientated) on brain cortical activity and cognitive performance. Brain cortical activity was recorded using a 16 channel EEG before and after exercise across the 520 days of confinement. Cognitive performance was assessed using three commercially available brain games.

Following the theory of transient hypofrontality, results show a significant decrease of frontal brain cortical activity after exercise (p < .05) which was most expressed after endurance orientated protocols. Cognitive performance was improved following running sessions on an active treadmill (p < .05).

Results let us assume that not exercise per se acts as a neuro-enhancer. It is more likely that a general defocusing caused by an immersion into exercise is necessary to improve cognitive performance.


▸ Effects of exercise on brain function were measured during 520 days of isolation.


▸ A decrease in prefrontal cortex activity after endurance exercise was examined.


▸ Cognitive performance was increased after running exercise.


▸ Data is discussed with respect to the theory of transient hypofrontality.

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