Astronaut balancing act: Training to help explorers adapt to a return to gravity

December 09, 2009

HOUSTON - (Dec. 9, 2009) - Astronauts returning from challenging long-duration missions face one more challenge when they get back to Earth - standing up and walking.

Upon returning to normal gravity, astronauts often suffer from balance problems that lead to dizziness and difficulty standing, walking and turning corners. Dr. Jacob Bloomberg is leading a group of National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) scientists in a project to develop techniques to help astronauts adapt quickly to a new gravity environment and to overcome balance disturbances. This concept will also have benefits for non-astronaut populations such as the elderly or people with balance disorders.

Bloomberg of NASA Johnson Space Center Neurosciences Laboratory and his colleagues use a system that consists of a treadmill mounted on a base that can be actively moved in different directions to simulate balance disturbances. Called an Adaptability Training System, the treadmill has a projection screen in front of it that shows an image of a room or hallway that moves as the user walks. Disturbances are simulated by tilting the treadmill in one direction as the image is tilted in another.

"At first, people find it difficult to walk on the treadmill since its movement and images are out of sync. But over time, they learn to walk on it efficiently. We call this concept 'learning to learn,'" said Bloomberg, who is the associate team leader of NSBRI's Sensorimotor Adaptation Team and a senior research scientist at NASA.

In order to perform everyday activities, the brain interprets information provided by the body's sensory systems: the eyes, the inner ear balance organs, the skin and muscle movement receptors. Bloomberg said the problems for astronauts occur during the transition period in which the brain is trying to adapt to a new gravity environment - either returning to Earth or in the future adjusting to lunar or martian gravity.

"In space, information from the sensory systems is different, particularly when you take away gravity. The brain reinterprets that information, makes adjustments and allows you to do the activities you need to do in space," Bloomberg said. "The down side to that is when you return to Earth, the sensory systems are not used to a normal gravity environment."

Former NASA astronaut Dr. Leroy Chiao experienced balance disturbances following his four spaceflights, one of which was a six-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS). He compared the effects to those experienced after stepping off a fast-spinning playground merry-go-round. "After a merry-go-round ride, the effects go away pretty quickly," Chiao said. "But after a spaceflight, they linger."

Post-flight data collected indicates a correlation between the length of the mission and how long effects linger. Bloomberg said if an astronaut has been in space on a typical two-week shuttle mission, it may take several days to recover. For six-month stays aboard the ISS, it could take at least several weeks to return to normal.

In addition to maximizing training efficiency, Bloomberg is looking at how long the benefit of the adaptability training lasts. Once subjects master the treadmill, they come back periodically for testing to see how well they perform. He is investigating if subjects can retain the training for up to six months, which would allow the training to take place before a long space mission.

Another goal of the researchers is to integrate a version of the system into the treadmill on a spacecraft, allowing astronauts to perform adaptability training on long missions. Integration would save space and power, both precious commodities on a spacecraft.

Chiao, who is the chairman of NSBRI's User Panel, said the research could provide insight about much longer missions. "On a flight to Mars, astronauts will be in zero-gravity for six months or more. When they get to Mars, they will experience one-third gravity," Chiao said. "Will systems like this allow them to go to work right away? Or will there need to be a recovery period or procedures before exploration can begin? These are important questions that this research is addressing."

Project co-investigator Dr. Helen Cohen, professor of otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine, said, "It will not be a good situation if an astronaut lands on a new planet and has problems maintaining balance. The training could help maintain astronaut safety and help them accomplish mission objectives."

Sensorimotor disturbances are not limited to standing up and walking. "Some people with inner ear trouble don't steer a vehicle well," said Cohen, associate director of the Center for Balance Disorders at BCM. "Adaptability training could also help people to perform these types of tasks better."

Even though the cause of the sensorimotor problems is different, Bloomberg said the adaptability training concept could help prevent falls in the elderly.

"For astronauts, the sensory systems are working just fine but the information is being interpreted differently. For the elderly, it could be a combination of issues: the sensory systems may be deteriorated or the information may not be integrated by the brain as well as before," he said. "We might use this training to improve some of the deficits that the elderly might experience. There are definitely applications in the clinical world in terms of fall prevention with the elderly population."
-end-
Release and photos available at: http://www.nsbri.org/NewsPublicOut/Release.epl?r=130

NSBRI, funded by NASA, is a consortium of institutions studying the health risks related to long-duration spaceflight. The Institute's science, technology and education projects take place at more than 60 institutions across the United States.

National Space Biomedical Research Institute

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.