Neurophysiological, neuropsychological, and cognitive effects of 30 days of isolation

  • Jan WeberEmail author
  • Florian Javelle
  • Timo Klein
  • Tina Foitschik
  • Brian Crucian
  • Stefan Schneider
  • Vera Abeln
Research Article


The increasing demand of space flights requires a profound knowledge of the chronologic reactions of the human body to extreme conditions. Prior studies already have shown the adverse effects of long-term isolation on psycho-physiological well-being. The chronology of the effects and whether short-term isolation periods already lead to similar effects has not been investigated. Therefore, the aim of the current study was to investigate the effects of short-term isolation (30 days) on mood, cognition, cortisol, neurotrophic factors, and brain activity. 16 participants were isolated in the Human Exploration Research Analog at NASA for 30 days. 17 non-isolated control participants were tested simultaneously. On mission days − 5, 7, 14, 28, and + 5, multiple tests including the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule-X and cognitive tests were conducted, and a 5-min resting electroencephalography was recorded. A fasted morning blood drawing was also done. Increased stress was observed via augmented cortisol levels during the isolation period. Activity within the parietal cortex was reduced over time, probably representing a neural adaptation to less external stimuli. Cognitive performance was not affected, but rather enhanced in both groups. No further significant changes in neurotrophic factors BDNF/IGF-1 and mood could be detected. These results suggest that 30 days of isolation do not have a significant impact on brain activity, neurotrophic factors, cognition, or mood, even though stress levels were significantly increased during isolation. Further studies need to address the question as to what extent increased levels of stress do not affect mental functions during isolation periods.


Isolation Cortisol Neurotrophic factors Brain activity Mood Cognition 



Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor


Insulin-like growth factor 1


Low-resolution brain electromagnetic tomography


Human exploration research analog


Isolation group


Control group


Mission day


Positive and negative affect schedule-X


General positive affect


General negative affect




Adrenocorticotropic hormone


Prefrontal cortex



This study was supported by a grant from the German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) as handled by German Space Agency (DLR), grant No. 50WB1516 to Vera Abeln. The authors would like to thank all participants and all HERA team members with a particular gratitude to Tiffany Swarmer.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

There is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jan Weber
    • 1
    Email author
  • Florian Javelle
    • 2
  • Timo Klein
    • 1
  • Tina Foitschik
    • 1
  • Brian Crucian
    • 3
  • Stefan Schneider
    • 1
  • Vera Abeln
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Movement and NeurosciencesGerman Sport UniversityCologneGermany
  2. 2.Institute for Cardiology and Sports MedicineGerman Sport UniversityCologneGermany
  3. 3.NASA-Johnson Space CenterHoustonUSA

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