Saturday, October 25, 2014

Laundry on Mars

One of the back burner issues involved in the colonization of Mars is how will colonists do laundry? It seems like a rather simple question and a general task that is taken for granted, especially with the convenience of the developed world. However, on Mars heavy conservation of both energy and water will eliminate both conventional machine washing or even hand washing. So with these significant limitations how will Mars colonists clean their clothing?

Looking towards the behavior of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) does not provide any immediate assistance. While it is standard procedure for astronauts on the ISS to wear clothing for longer than a 24-hour period, its close proximity to Earth allows for simple clothing replacement during cargo missions with dirty laundry being burnt up during re-entry. This re-supply process is obviously not available for Martian colonists because additional clothing will add weight and cost to the initial launch and in addition to these negative elements will also take months to arrive in any supplementary launches. Another non-helpful aspect is that most conventionally worn clothing by astronauts visiting the ISS is not specialized in any real sense beyond having a reduced number of seams (or being seamless) with Cabelas and Lands End seemingly being the more prominent brands worn.

With the difficulties associated with cleaning and/or providing new clothing after the initial launch some could argue that after the habitat is established clothing may not be necessary. A well-kept habitat would have a comfortable temperature between 65 and 80 degrees F with little humidity. A lack of non-human origin microbes eliminates any direct infection issues. An air lock separates the preparation staging area for extravehicular activities (EVAs) and the remaining living area of the habitat eliminating the incursion of any negative outer environmental elements. Psychological evaluations and training can manage any potential colonist “revulsion” towards interacting with their nude crewmates. However, while the major immediate issues for accepting nudity appear manageable there are a number of smaller issues.

One of the less heralded benefits of clothing is absorption of general excretions like sweat, shed skin cells, etc. Without clothing there is a much higher probability that these excretions are deposited on various solid surfaces within the habitat, which would not be hygienic and could even damage equipment. Also clothing offers a secondary protective barrier to wards off various ailments that could breach the skin like burns or various cuts and scratches. This additional protection would also serve as a valuable psychological assurance when performing maintenance on various life support systems like waste disposal/recycling or when creating new parts in situ within a prospective machine shop. Not many individuals would be comfortable sanding/welding something with only eye protection.

Some rudimentary experiments have been conducted with some more specialized clothing options like the Japanese Space Federation’s “J-wear”, which includes underwear, shirts, pants, and socks made from cotton and polyester and purports to be anti-bacterial, water-absorbent, odor eliminating, antistatic and flame retardant. Most likely this material has these properties because it is doped with titanium oxide (titania or TiO2) and some other additives. However, the actual testing of this material is limited, especially in its publication, so the time frame for the efficacy of these claims is unknown. One “famous” study with a Japanese astronaut on the ISS created some anecdotal evidence that underwear can retain a chiefly non-offensive odor when worn for around one month.

The reason TiO2 is effective at creating the cleaning advantages is because it is a potent photocatalyst that is able to neutralize the staining of almost any organic compound when exposed to ultra violet (UV) radiation. When TiO2 is exposed to and absorbs UV it results in excited electrons on the valence band of TiO2. This excess energy promotes electrons to the conduction band creating new negative electrons and positive holes. In the presence of water the positive hole interacts with the water to form hydrogen gas and hydroxyl radicals. The free negative electron reacts with the newly formed hydroxyl radical to form a super oxide anion, which decomposes organic stains. In addition if TiO2 is doped onto a fabric it creates a protective film that provides a bio-static, super oxidative and hydrophilic barrier.

Photocatalytic effects, as described above, can also kill bacteria due to the large amounts of hydroxyl radicals produced during the reaction steps. These hydroxyl radicals also aid in eliminating odors as they breakdown the molecular bonds that comprise most volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some have envisioned the further evolution of this process by doping the TiO2 with nitrogen and adding silver iodide to make the process applicable to visible light, but this is not necessary because a small portion of the habitat could inundated with a UV light source to act as a “laundry area” of sorts. Also it is unclear how safe the silver doping would be for excess exposure to silver iodide is toxic when ingested and repeated contact with skin can lead to argyria, which turns one’s skin blue. Therefore, it makes little sense to include silver iodide. Unfortunately efficient operation of photocatalysts, including TiO2 requires water, which will be in short supply on Mars. Therefore, testing would have to be performed to determine the length of time between UV “washes”.

With or without TiO2 doping exposure to UV light should be sufficient to eliminate any bacteria growth born from the bodies of the colonists. Therefore, the biggest issue will be odor. Another strategy to eliminate odors may be to incorporate a “Febreze” strategy. The active ingredient in the household odor eliminating product Febreze is hydroxypropyl beta-cyclodextrin. Various cyclodextrins including beta-cyclodextrin, are produced from starch via enzymatic conversion. These elements can theoretically be produced in situ on Mars, but the difficult element would be converting the beta-cyclodextrin to hydroxypropyl beta-cyclodextrin due to the lack of easily available carbon elements on Mars. Therefore, this type of solution may not be prudent.

Overall it is clear that some area of the habitat will have to be converted into a dark room of sorts with UV lights to act as an area to clean bacteria from clothing. Limiting the influence of odor on the psychological well being of the colonists is the principle question. Some could argue that individuals have a tendency to become accustomed to smells, but that desensitization demands a static element to the odors; it stands to reason that if odors are not managed then they will progressively expand in a negative manner, thus colonists will probably never generate an accustomed affinity. Therefore, an odor elimination strategy will need to be incorporated. Determining between either an “Febreze” chemical strategy versus a photocatalytic strategy will involve identifying the production capacity in situ of the desired odor eliminating chemical and the amount of water that will be required to active that phootcatalytic effect to sufficiently remove odor. This information can be easily determined in a long-term Martian colonization simulation study performed on Earth, which sadly do not yet incorporate such testing.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A new tool to help fight against mental illness?

The history of addressing mental illness has been a tumultuous one in the United States. In the past behaving against the norm commonly landed an individual in jail or an asylum, both which existed on the periphery of society, a location that potentially reduced the ability to produce effective treatment. The location was typically not the only element that reduced the viability of effective treatment as a number of asylums were poorly funded and staffed by a number of individuals who appeared to quickly tire of continuous interaction with “non-normal” individuals reducing their vigor for proper treatment both physically and mentally.

In more modern times a “so-called” enlightenment regarding mental illness was born from deinstitutionalization. The “noble” or liberalized story of deinstitutionalization involves the belief that the development of both Medicare and Medicaid as well as various psychotropic medications allows mentally ill patients to function “normally” and live among the community reducing the stigma of having a mental illness, thereby increasing their ability to assimilate and manage their condition(s). However, the more dirtied history of deinstitutionalization is that after the Supreme Court ruling in Souder v. Brennan prohibited mental hospitals from exchanging patient labor for room and board, forcing these institutions to pay for patient labor at minimum wage levels, there was little opposition to implementing the principles of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 regardless of execution viability. Unfortunately despite the public’s apparent “zest” to integrate mental patients into society, the networked infrastructure that was to support these patients never materialized in a vast majority of places.

Sadly this early failure in the 60s and 70s has yet to be significantly rectified for while the proportion of individuals in public mental hospitals has dropped from 0.338% (558,000/165 million) in 1955 to 0.016% (50,000/313 million) in 2010,1 the Department of Justice estimated in 2006 that at least 24% of inmates in state prisons and 14% of inmates in federal prisons have mental illness and an additional 15% of state inmates and 24% of local/city inmates meet criteria for psychotic disorders.2,3 It stands to reason based on how mental illness is currently treated that this number has only increased into 2014. In addition at least 50% of a number of ex-cons with significant mental illness are rearrested typically through violations of their parole (these individuals have come to be known as “frequent fliers”).1 Incarceration has its own societal stigmas, imagine how difficult successful community treatment could be with both a criminal record and a mental illness.

Deinstitutionalization has also failed to live up to the idealistic diverse and “normal” environment pictured by its supporters in the associated residential “communities”. To most these “communities” have become a de facto urban asylum that again cares little for the recovery or treatment of the patients reducing the probability of any return to genuine normalcy. Some hold out hope that the focus of the Affordable Care Act on result-based outcomes will be an effective panacea to the squalor conditions of a number of these mental illness communities, but whether or not that reality will emerge is difficult to predict due to numerous unknowns and at the moment seems more unlikely than likely.

These environmental factors notwithstanding, one aspect of treatment that is not typically discussed is the idea of an individual focal add-on treatment where an individual that suffers from mental illness attempts to “commandeer” their brain in effort to regain control. Basically one wonders if too much emphasis has been placed on pharmaceutical, talk therapy and, now in modern times, assertive community treatment resulting in the omission of more personal options? Such abandonment is perplexing because these potential methods have almost no side effects and very little financial cost. With this intention to add an extra tool to the toolbox it must be mentioned that general result-based analysis of treatments for mental illness is almost non-existent. Despite advancements in the ability to treat mental illness almost no one actually studies which of these treatments work, both on an absolute (does treatment A work) and relative (does treatment A work better than treatment B) level.4,5 Therefore, these methods would have to be studied and compared against and in cooperation with existing methods.

One example of an individually driven treatment would be an attempt to control the multiple network firing of schizophrenia by engaging in a task requiring overpowering focus to reduce the firing of the other more spontaneous neuronal elements. For example when a schizophrenic begins to hear voices he/she would begin to play a game of chess, start a logic puzzle, a sudoku puzzle, i.e. a task that requires significant focus in order to be successful. One of the keys to this strategy is to identify a simple task/game that requires focus, but also makes an individual content (not necessarily happy). The necessity of contentment is to ensure a lack of frustration thus affording the ability to maintain focus.

Contentment is an element that seems to be pushed to the side when discussing mental illness, with focus instead placed on happiness and unhappiness. Contentment is important because it is less vulnerable to the negative impacts of more extreme emotional states, which can rapidly cascade into opposing elements (i.e. happiness can quickly become unhappiness and visa-versa), but is still emotionally positive enough to spark focus and enjoyment.

Another option could be producing an overpowering focus through visualization. By focusing on a single place of reference an individual would create a positive non-violent altered reality that could control spontaneously produced changes in mood or sensory information. The complexity of elements assigned to enriching and maintaining the visualization could mute the action potentials associated with the spontaneous firings that create symptoms of mental illness.

Another technique, one more recognizable by many for its ability to assist in mental control, is meditation. In recent years meditation has become an interesting subject of contemplation regarding its potential to manage the negative symptoms of mental disease. For the purpose of this brief discussion meditation is regarded as a physiological state invoking physical and mental relaxation with a reduced metabolic activity.6

The state of meditation is achieved through the reduction of thought processes to a single focused internal dialogue in the mind eliminating mental clutter and spontaneous thoughts. Unsurprisingly the elimination of this mental clutter enhances pure awareness and clarity on the single internal dialogue, usually calm central breathing tethered by the single focal word. Theoretically a meditative state could block the occurrence of negative symptoms from mental illness. This possibility is supported by the reported long-term effects seen in meditation practitioners such as: enhanced concentration attention skills, improved self-control and self-monitoring, increased ability to inhibit irrelevant external and internal stimuli, increased positive mood, emotional stability and improved resilience of stress.7 One issue with meditation is that most of the research has been conducted in small groups with few meaningful controls; therefore, outside of very long term practitioners it is difficult to determine when the advantages of consistent meditation will take hold.

However, meditation does have its share of more serious potential concerns as there is past evidence that during meditation an individual with a mental illness can have an increased probability of exacerbating short-term (non-permanent) psychosis.8 This increased risk for temporary psychosis could be drawn from the increased anxiousness that is common among individuals with mental illness, which makes meditation in general more difficult, but could also make it more beneficial in the long run. Another concern is that individuals with mental illnesses have motivational issues or even defects, which may make inspiring the discipline for routine focal tasks like meditation more difficult.

Note that these above personal add-on strategies differ from cognitive behavioral therapy because they do not seek to change the long-term thinking paradigms held by a particular individual. Instead these techniques are theoretically thought to act as an acute deterrent to be applied upon the onset of a significant negative aspect of a given mental illness.

On a side note numerous individuals think that education is an important aspect to limiting, or even eliminating, stigmas associated with mental illness, which is a reasonable and accurate assessment. However, no one really seems to suggest a means of applying a mandatory aspect to this education element, which would significantly increase its effectiveness. For example one effective means to addressing public education of mental illness would be for all high school students to take a psychology class that would be required for graduation that covers various mental illnesses in depth. Through this class all high school students would learn rudimentary means to identify symptoms of mental illness, manage it, and how to effectively interact with those who have a mental illness limiting uncomfortable and/or inappropriate moments.

Overall many have professed a concern that mental illness will increase in the future due to increases in population and proportion of occurrence.9 This increase is buffered by the concern that most traditional talk therapy treatment will remain centralized in high population affluent areas of the country. Unfortunately there is no evidence that this unequal distribution of certain psychological services will change, thus placing additional pressure on community environmental therapy and pharmaceuticals. To alleviate this pressure new techniques need to be developed. Understand that these techniques are acute immediate response deterrents and are not meant to replace other therapies; it is to say that one should not say that Johnny no longer needs his anti-psychotics because he plays chess. The above strategies appear to be theoretically viable and worthy of further study to determine whether or not they are empirically viable. If so these individual acute strategies could be important elements in reducing the more severe negative attributes associated with mental illness.

Citations –

1. Edmondson, B. “Crazy enough to care.” The American Scholar. Spring 2012. 46-55.

2. Clayton, A, et Al. “The citizenship project part II: impact of a citizenship intervention on clinical and community outcomes for persons with mental illness and criminal justice involvement.” Am. J. Community Psychol. DOI 10.1007/s10464-012-9549.

3. Department of Justice. Mental health problems of prison and jail inmates. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. (2006). NCJ 213600.

4. Morgan, R, et Al. “Treating offenders with mental illness: a research synthesis.” Law Hum Behav. 2012. 36(1): 37–50.

5. Rice, M, and Harris, G. “The treatment of mentally disordered offenders.” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. 1997. 3:126–183.

6. Young, J, and Taylor, E. “Meditation as a voluntary hypometabolic state of biological estivation.” News in Physiological Sciences. 2001. 13:149–153.

7. Rubia, K. “The neurobiology of meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders.” Biological Psychology. 2009. 82:1-11.

8. Walsh, R, and Roche, L. “Precipitation of acute psychotic episodes by intensive meditation in individuals with a history of schizophrenia.” Am J Psychiatry. 1979. 136:1085–6.

9. Mathers, C. and Loncar, D. “Updated projections of global mortality and burden of disease, 2002–2030 data sources, methods and results.” Evidence and Information for Policy. 2005.