Study­ing an as­tro­naut’s point of view

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - NEWS - I VAN SEMENIUK SCI­ENCE RE­PORTER

Cana­dian David Saint-Jac­ques at­tempts per­cep­tion ex­per­i­ments within days of ar­riv­ing at space sta­tion

Cana­dian as­tro­naut David Saint-Jac­ques may be a new ar­rival to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, but his first ex­pe­ri­ence with space­flight is al­ready pro­vid­ing sci­en­tists with a key data point in their ef­forts to un­der­stand how the brain cre­ates a sense of ori­en­ta­tion and mo­tion.

At around 5 a.m. on Thurs­day, Dr. Saint-Jac­ques at­tempted a novel set of per­cep­tion ex­per­i­ments de­vised by Lau­rence Harris, a pro­fes­sor with the Hu­man Per­for­mance Lab­o­ra­tory at York Univer­sity in Toronto.

Af­ter teth­er­ing him­self in­side the sta­tion’s Columbus sci­ence mod­ule, Dr. Saint-Jac­ques donned a pair of gog­gles and im­mersed him­self in a vir­tual-re­al­ity en­vi­ron­ment de­signed to test how his brain de­ter­mines which way is up and how far ob­jects are in the dis­tance. On Earth, the vis­ual cues pro­vided by the ex­per­i­ment are com­bined with sig­nals from the in­ner ear, also known as the vestibu­lar sys­tem, which alert the brain when the body is ac­cel- er­at­ing or tilted with re­spect to the force of grav­ity.

In the zero-grav­ity en­vi­ron­ment of the space sta­tion, the vestibu­lar sys­tem is ef­fec­tively off­line, al­low­ing sci­en­tists to fo­cus on how the vis­ual sys­tem can lead or mis­lead the brain in its judg­ments. The work is meant to ex­plore, in a quan­ti­ta­tive way, some of the per­cep­tion ef­fects that as­tro­nauts have pre­vi­ously re­port- ed they can ex­pe­ri­ence in space, in­clud­ing a sense that dis­tances are com­pressed rel­a­tive to how they seem on Earth.

Both Dr. Saint-Jac­ques and his U.S. crew mate Anne McClain per­formed the ex­per­i­ment less than three days af­ter ar­riv­ing at the sta­tion.

“We wanted to get them early be­fore they were too used to be­ing in space,” said Dr. Harris, who was in con­tact with Dr. Saint-Jac­ques dur­ing the ex­per­i­ment via the Cana­dian Space Agency’s mis­sion control cen­tre near Mon­treal.

Ul­ti­mately, Dr. Harris and his team aim to have seven as­tro­nauts par­tic­i­pate in the study be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter their time in space. In ad­di­tion to help­ing as­tro­nauts ad­just to their per­cep­tions while on the sta­tion, the re­sults may shed light on how to bet­ter help those on Earth who have vestibu­lar problems due to in­jury or neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders.

Dr. Harris said he was pleased with how Dr. Saint-Jac­ques seemed to man­age with the de­mands of the ex­per­i­ment.

“By all ap­pear­ances he was do­ing, re­ally, re­ally well … I’m sure way bet­ter that I would have done af­ter be­ing launched into a space a few days ear­lier.”


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