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Australian software used as US shoots for Mars

Extract from Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC Online, on 19 January 2004


NASA is using Australian software first designed to measure the brain function of Aborigines affected by petrol sniffing for experiments on what people would need to survive the hostile environment of Mars.

The software, designed by Melbourne company Cogstate, is a simple 12-minute test that flashes playing cards up on a computer screen.

Cogstate chief executive officer Peter Bick explains: "Playing cards are flashed on a computer screen and you're asked to remember the previous card or notice when a new card comes up and press a button, so it's a non-verbally based acultural test.

"Some of the people who invented the test were testing the effects of petrol sniffing on Aboriginals' brain function and they found that the usual tools that psychologists use are primarily designed for white, middle-class, mostly American, middle-education people, so they were biased against Greek immigrants coming into the country,Aboriginals in Arnhem Land," Dr Bick said.

"What they sought was a universal metaphor that could be used as a stimulus and it turns out the universal metaphor is not art or literature or music, it's gambling."

NASA is funding experiments in the desert of Utah in the United States, trying to simulate the possible conditions astronauts would experience on Mars.

"We take a flash in the pan, a location as to what your current state is, so we can tell you reliably if there's a change in your function," Dr Bick said.

"So what the NASA people are doing is testing someone at base line and then they put the astronaut under stress and they see if that person's performance has changed, if it has deteriorated under stress."

He says the test measures "memory, concentration, executive function, which is an ability to multi-task at the same time, and it gives you a read-out where you can see in graphical form and in digital responses how good a person's performance is at a moment in time".

Dr Bick says NASA is using the software because it can be applied to any situation.

"It's a thermometer for the mind or a weight machine," he said. "It really just tells you what's happening, so its application could be in any situation."

Cogstate says its software is the first that can detect whether someone will develop memory problems in the future, a sign of a degenerative disorder like Alzheimer's. So drug companies are also using the test to measure the effectiveness of their experimental drugs.

Dr Bick says it is being used in early Alzheimer's detection.

"What you're looking for is a very subtle change over a long period of time. If you start losing your keys or misplacing your wallet, your family is likely to say 'he's just being him again'," he said.

"But what you really want to know is if that isn't you, is it the start of a degenerative disease.

"So what we have is this thermometer, in a way, which can tell you if those changes that are happening in your brain are the early signs of Alzheimer's disease."

-- adapted from a story by Rafael Epstein for The World Today


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