Is quelling motion sickness a question of mind over matter? Possibly so, given the proper training, say researchers who are testing a NASA biofeedback system developed to try to help astronauts adjust to microgravity.
The disorientating effects of spaceflight will sound familiar to anyone who has ever grown dizzy, nauseous or faint riding in a car, flying in an airplane or sailing on a ship.
"It really is a problem. The incidence (of motion sickness) is extremely common. It occurs on every form of transportation — even riding camels," Millard Reschke, chief of neuroscience at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, told Discovery News.
About 70 to 80 percent of the astronauts experience symptoms of space sickness. Medications can help, but the side effects, which include sleepiness and a lack of mental acuity, present another set of potential problems for working in space.
NASA psychologists wondered if space sickness could be controlled or mitigated by the astronauts themselves if they learned to regulate their heart rates, respiration and other responses of the body's autonomic nervous system. They developed a six-hour anti-motion sickness training program, known as the Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise, to find out.
The experiments didn't get too far, in part because the training required making astronauts sick enough on rotating chair tests so they could learn to master their body's responses. Not many wanted to participate, said Mae Jemison, a former shuttle astronaut now running a company developing commercial applications for the technology, such as enhancing athletic performance or mitigating fear of public speaking.
"These things we thought that we could not control, we just never learned how to. This system holds up a mirror. You're seeing your own biology," Jemsion told Discovery News.
In July, the U.S. Navy began testing the program to see if it can be used to salvage the careers of promising pilots and flight crew who are prone to air sickness.
"We expect to work with 15 to 20 people at least," lead researcher Patricia Cowings, with NASA's Ames Research Center in California, wrote in an e-mail to Discovery News.
Study participants wear sensors that measure heart rate, respiration and other systems and learn exercises to induce sensations, such as warmth in the hands, which are associated with specific physiological responses.
Previous studies have shown the training can enhance tolerance of motion sickness in 80 percent of the participants within six hours of training, notes NASA in a summary of the Navy study.
"Unlike relaxation training, subjects learn to recognize physiological changes associated with motion stimulation (i.e. rotating chair tests) and to voluntarily 'mimic' their own resting levels," the study says.
The training is being conducted via the Internet with personnel at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute in Pensacola, Fla.