Zapping Nerves Simulates Space-Flight Effects
2010-08-25 0:00

By Jess McNally |

Astro-Brain Trickery:
Testing an electrical device that simulates an astronaut’s brain’s confusion returning to earth’s gravity.

A new device simulates the dizzying experience of returning from space, by zapping pilots with electrical current behind the ears.

“You can train for spaceflight tasks under normal conditions on Earth, but that will not give you an indication of what an astronaut feels like,” said neurologist Steven Moore of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, who leads the research group that has developed the new device, in a press release. “The galvanic vestibular stimulation system will make mission simulations more realistic. This will be quite useful in training, especially for astronauts that haven’t flown before.”

The device’s large electrodes are taped behind the ears and deliver up to a 5-milliamp current. The current stimulates the vestibular nerve, which the body uses to orient itself in space. Zapping the nerve confuses the signals being sent to the brain.

Moore tested the device on 12 subjects in the Vertical Motion Simulator at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. The subjects included a veteran shuttle commander, NASA test pilots and U.S. Air Force pilots. They each flew 16 simulated shuttle landings, during eight of which they were continuously zapped with the GVS.

The simulated shuttle landings were compared to data collected from 100 actual shuttle landings. Moore said that one out of five actual shuttle landings have been outside the optimal range of touchdown speed and sink rate, and that the GVS zapping led to similar pilot errors.

“The GVS stimulation of the nerves is making the simulator pilots think the spacecraft is moving around. We are happy with that result,” Moore said.

The concept of tricking the brain with GVS has been around for a long time. According to the press release, this device is unique in that it uses large electrodes to deliver the stimulus and is packaged in a portable module about the size of a box of tissues, so that it can be carried around.

The device also has potential use for training astronauts for landing on Mars, training aircraft pilots and preparing people with balance disorders for the effects following surgery.

The research was funded by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

A three-time space shuttle commander uses the GVS during a space shuttle landing simulation.
Photo: Human Aerospace Laboratory, Mount Sinai School of Medicine

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