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Asthenia—Does It Exist in Space?

Kanas, Nick MD; Salnitskiy, Vyacheslav PhD; Gushin, Vadim MD; Weiss, Daniel S. PhD; Grund, Ellen M. MS; Flynn, Christopher MD; Kozerenko, Olga MD; Sled, Alexander MS, and; Marmar, Charles R. MD

Special Issue: Outerspace Research: Editorial

Objective First popularized as neurasthenia in the late 1800s by American George Beard, asthenia has been viewed by Russian psychologists and flight surgeons as a major problem that affects cosmonauts participating in long-duration space missions. However, there is some controversy about whether this syndrome exists in space; this controversy is attributable in part to the fact that it is not recognized in the current American psychiatric diagnostic system.

Methods To address this issue empirically, we retrospectively examined the data from our 4 1/2-year, NASA-funded study of crew member and mission control interactions during the Shuttle/Mir space program. Three of the authors identified eight items of stage 1 asthenia from one of our measures, the Profile of Mood States (POMS). Scores on these items from 13 Russian and American crew members were compared with scores derived from the opinions of six Russian space experts.

Results Crew members’ scores in space were significantly lower than the experts’ scores on seven of the eight items, and they generally were in the “not at all” to “a little” range of the item scales. There were no differences in mean scores before and after launch or across the four quarters of the missions. There were no differences in response between Russian and American crew members.

Conclusions We could not demonstrate the presence of asthenia in space as operationally defined using the POMS. However, the POMS addresses only emotional and not physiological aspects of the syndrome, and the subject responses in our study generally were skewed toward the positive end of the scales. Further research on this syndrome needs to be done and should include physiological measures and measures that are specific to asthenia.

From the Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, and the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, San Francisco, CA (N.K., D.S.W., E.M.G., C.R.M); the Institute for Biomedical Problems, Moscow, Russia (V.S., V.G., O.K., A.S.); and the Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX (C.F).

Address reprint requests to: Nick Kanas, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, UCSF, VA Medical Center (116A), 4150 Clement St., San Francisco, CA 94121. Email:

Received for publication September 12, 2000; revision received January 19, 2001.

Copyright © 2001 by American Psychosomatic Society
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