In this month’s Science Journal we talk to the Czech psychologists who monitored the participants in the Mars 500 experiment, and also to the discoverers of a hitherto unknown, tick-borne disease.
A year and a half ago on this programme we talked about the Mars 500 programme and the role that Czech psychologists are playing in that major endeavour. For a reminder, the aim of the project, among other things, to test the steel of human nerves by locking six would-be astronauts in a mock spaceship, sending them to a mock Mars and then bringing them back to the very real Moscow parking lot from whence they started their journey – a journey to nowhere but into the mind. The course of that journey was being monitored by the Czech company QED, which specialises in a psychoanalytical method called sociomapping, used to study and foster interpersonal relations on the “ship”.
The project is now over – at least for the “astronauts”, who were released on schedule this month. To find out how the project went from the Czech end at least, I talked to Radvan Bahbouh, the director of QED, who I asked how the method had proven itself:
“We are only at the very beginning of analyzing all of the things connected to communication within the team. I suppose you know the main reason why we have been using sociomapping in the Mars 500 programme: it is necessary to check whether the trends in communication are constant or whether there are some risks, for example concerning the decrease of communication or channels that are in a ‘stuck state’. And if we find something problematic then we have been able to give such information to the control centre and ask them to debrief the members of the team and encourage them to find time for communication about communication.”
You were monitoring them for a year and a half, so did they have any serious problems in communications? Did it come to any crisis points?
“I think in comparison with all of the previous experiments, this team was the best, in terms of having not only good quality but quantity of communication. Of course there are some problems, if we have an international team then it is normal that there are some subgroups – one national subgroup was that of the Russian astronauts, and it is visible in the sociomaps that they were more closed off towards each other than towards the other members. But that’s normal. In a team of six people, you don’t have the same frequency of communication in all channels. Sixteen people means fifteen communication channels, and some of them are very god in terms of flexibility and exchange of information, and others are not.”
Are there any specific situations that you can tell us about? I assume much of it is still not open to the public, but are there any situations that you can tell us about that occurred?
“Yes it is too early, because we don’t want to open all of the information about this without having gone through it with the members of the team and the control centre. But I think I can say that communication within this team was relatively stable. Based on previous research we supposed that at the end of isolation – at the end of this work – there would be a big risk of decreased communication. The critical point of all previous experiments was at the end, before ‘landing’. And in this team it wasn’t so critical – they were able to communicate with good quality until the end of the experiment...”
So there was nothing that would have jeopardized the mission had it been a real mission to Mars and back?
“I think that in this team there was no great risk. I think that was partly because that was caused by the fact that they had time to be debriefed about their communications and to think about it. Because they had the opportunity to be more mindful of their communication and see long-term trends and to do something about it. So that opportunity to think about communications with other members and to think about misunderstandings, and about the real state and ideal state… they had that opportunity to think about their next steps and how to improve communications.”
You use sociomapping in many other situations, like in the workplace and elsewhere. What have you learned from this experiment, and how will it help you in other regards?
‘”Yes, for example we will be able to add the real liability of skills, how stable communication is during such a long period in isolation. We are able to differentiate some phases in team dynamics, because there are studies about that, and we can check them to see whether we have the same scenarios visible in the dynamics of our sociomap. For us, it is a very important and very useful type of experiment. And we can correlate our data with external data, for example medical or performance of the team. I think it is good to find connections between the team’s communication and their performance. And tha is a very interesting question, whether there iss a relation between these two things – performance and team communication.”
Czech scientists work on the very large, and the very small, and some of the latter group have made the interesting discovery of a new pathogen, a new bacterial disease, carried by ticks and hitherto unknown. Or rather, unknown in humans. Or rather, not being a Czech scientist of the large or small myself, I’ll leave the explaining to Dr Soňa Peková of Prague’s Chambon laboratory, which made the discovery.
“Basically, we identified this pathogen – its name is candidatus neoehrlichia mikurensis. We identified it in 2008 in a patient with a haematological disease, but at that point we just considered it some kind of weird case report and there was no time to publish anything, it just seemed like some freak of nature we identified in someone who was severely immuno-compromised. But later on, in 2010, we saw another case – again in someone with a haematological disease, and he had just had an orthotopic liver transplant. So at that point it became much more interesting for us and we decided to publish the paper. But as you know, if you try to publish something in a peer-reviewed, international journal it takes time. So it took us about a year and a half to get it published and by that time a couple of other groups, in Germany and Sweden, published something very similar to our work. So we were not the first, but it’s hard to tell who was.”
It was first noticed several years ago in Japan, what symptoms led to that discovery?
That’s a funny story, because it was not discovered in humans. It was on the island of Mikura in Japan, and it was found in rats. So it was considered a true zoonosis, meaning a disease that can only be identified in animals. So no one thought it would ever be seen in humans, and that is why the news was so ground-breaking: when we and the other groups in Europe found this pathogen, previously thought to be able to infect only animals, to be a causative agent in humans.
It has only been identified in very few people - I believe eight at the moment. What do you think the chances are that it could be much more wide-spread?
That cannot be excluded. Basically, our laboratory deal with severely immuno-compromised individuals, meaning patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment, bone marrow transplants… and this is like a kind of prerequisite for acquiring these kinds of unusual pathogens. So it can’t be excluded that many more people suffer from some kind of ehrlichiosis, because it’s not clinically sought, and the clinical signs are extremely unspecific – joint pain, spinal pain, fevers, sub-fevers… nothing so specific. So basically we were extremely lucky to identify this in our patients and it was only because of the great thoroughness of the clinical doctors, because they were looking for anything: for viruses, different kinds of bacteria and so on, but only using standard microbiological techniques. And we applied molecular biological techniques on these two cases and that is why we were able to identify it.