NASA Spinoff

Web-Based Programs Assess Cognitive Fitness

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Astronauts, pilots, air traffic controllers, truck drivers, shift workers, and mountain climbers have something in common: All are at risk for impaired cognitive abilities due to stress or sleep deprivation. Whether in space or on Earth, stress and sleep loss can cause a reduction in certain cognitive abilities, such as working memory, reaction time, and problem solving. Because mission safety and success depend on being able to think clearly and function well, NASA began exploring a small, portable way for astronauts to monitor themselves and their cognitive fitness while in space, especially on future missions to Mars that will require extended periods in stressful environments.

Partnership

altThe National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), based in Houston and funded by NASA, leads a science and technology program to develop solutions to the health-related problems and physical and psychological challenges men and women face on long-duration space flights. The research results and medical technologies developed often have impact for conditions experienced on Earth.

In 2001, the NSBRI began funding research by Harvard University researcher, Dr. Stephen Kosslyn, now dean of social sciences, and research assistant, Jennifer Shephard. The project included the development of cognitive task scripting and administration software for personal digital assistants (PDAs) and an accompanying set of portable cognitive fitness tests, the MiniCog Rapid Assessment Battery (MRAB).

The test battery, which Kosslyn refers to as “a blood-pressure cuff for the mind,” assesses nine different cognitive functions and is intended to gauge the effects of stress-related deficits, such as fatigue, on astronauts as well as professionals on Earth. The original hand-held MRAB enabled someone to test his or her own alertness quickly and easily; depending on the assessment, users might realize they should take a nap or drink coffee instead of proceeding with any sort of risky or complex activity. In 2003 and 2004, in collaboration with the NSBRI, Mount Everest climbers self-administered the MRAB on Palm PDAs to test themselves for cognitive deficits in the oxygen-poor higher altitudes.

Harvard owns the software copyright, and a patent is pending. Although NSBRI funding ended for the MRAB in 2007, a California company now is using the battery in Web-based employment tests. In 2005, Drs. Josh Millet, Eric Loken, and David Sherman founded Criteria Corporation, based in Los Angeles. Now the company’s chief research scientist, Loken knew of Kosslyn’s research from his own experiences at Harvard and recommended the MRAB to Millet, a fellow Harvard graduate and Criteria’s CEO. After hearing about the MRAB, Criteria decided to license it from Harvard and adapted a Web-based version of it for delivery in 2006.

Product Outcome

Criteria offers subscription-based employment testing, and the MRAB is included in the company’s HireSelect subscription service along with about 15 other tests. The MRAB can be used not only for pre-employment testing but also for repeated administrations to measure day-to-day fluctuations of mental functioning. Unlike other aptitude tests, such as traditional college assessment exams, the MRAB focuses less on verbal skills and more on working memory, concentration, and problem-solving; testing involves tasks such as recognizing patterns within time limits and reacting accurately to information while attention is divided.