Canadian astronaut David Saint Jacques may be a new arrival at the International Space Station, but his first space flight experience now provides scientists with a key point in their efforts to understand how the brain creates a sense of orientation and movement.
About 5 pm On Thursday, Dr. St. Jacques experimented an innovative set of perceptual experiments created by Laurence Harris, a professor at the Laboratory of Human Performance at the University of York in Toronto.
Once stuck in Columbus Science Station, Dr. St. Jacques puts on a pair of glasses and immerses himself in a virtual reality environment designed to test how his brain determines who he is and how far the objects are in the distance. On Earth, the visual signals provided by the experiment are combined with internal ear signals, also known as the vestibular system, that warn the brain when the body accelerates or tilts in terms of the force of gravity.
Read more: Inside David Saint Jacques starts in orbit
In the middle of zero space gravity, the vestibular system is effectively shut down, allowing scientists to focus on how the visual system can lead or mislead the brain into its judgment. The work aims to quantitatively investigate some of the perceptual effects that astronauts have previously reported they can experience in space, including the sense that distances are compressed in terms of how they look on Earth.
Like Dr. Saint Jacques, and his team of American crews Ann McClain did 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," says Dr. Harris, who was in contact with Dr. St. Jacques during the experiment through the Canadian Space Agency Mission Control Center near to Montreal.
After all, Dr. Harris and his team are trying to involve seven astronauts in the study before, during and after time in space. As well as helping astronauts adapt to their perceptions during the station, the results may shed light on how better to help people on Earth who have vestibular problems due to injury or neurological disorders.
Dr. Harris said he was pleased with the way Dr. Saint Jacques seemed to meet the requirements of the experiment.
"Of all the appearances he really did really … I'm better off than I would have done after a few days ago I was running into space."