Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques may be a new arrival at the International Space Station, but his first experience with spaceflight is already providing scientists with an important data point in their efforts to understand how the brain creates a sense of direction and movement.
Around 5 o'clock Thursday morning, Dr. Saint-Jacques attempted a new set of perceptual experiments developed by Laurence Harris, a professor at the Human Performance Laboratory at York University in Toronto.
After locking himself inside the scientific module of the station in Columbus, Dr. Saint-Jacques donned a pair of glasses and plunged into a virtual reality environment designed to test how the brain determines which path is made and the distance between objects. On Earth, the visual cues provided by the experiment are combined with signals from the inner ear, also known as the vestibular system, that alert the brain when the body is accelerating or tilting relative to the force of gravity.
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In the space station's zero-gravity environment, the vestibular system is effectively out of line, allowing scientists to focus on how the visual system can lead or deceive the brain in its judgments. The work is designed to quantitatively explore some of the perception effects that astronauts have previously reported they may experience in space, including the sense that distances are compressed in relation to how they appear on Earth.
Both Dr. Saint-Jacques and his crewmates in the United States, Anne McClain, undertook the experiment less than three days after arriving at the station.
"We wanted to get them before they were too accustomed to being in space," said Harris, who was in contact with Dr. Saint-Jacques during the experiment through the Canadian Space Agency's mission control center near Montreal.
Ultimately, Dr. Harris and his team plan 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 clarify how to better assist those on Earth with vestibular problems due to injuries or neurological disorders.
Harris said he was pleased with the way Dr. Saint-Jacques seemed to handle the demands of the experiment.
"Apparently, he was very, very well … I'm sure it would be better than he would have done after being thrown in space a few days before."