Helping astronauts get their balance back

An Interview with:
Jacob J. Bloomberg, Ph.D.
NASA Johnson Space Center
NSBRI Sensorimotor Adaptation Team

Courtesy of EarthSky Communications

Jacob Bloomberg: You reprogram your internal software to deal with this unique environment of zero gravity. The only problem is, when you come back to Earth, you need to re-adapt.

Jacob Bloomberg is a senior research scientist at NASA Johnson Space Center. He said that astronauts returning from the zero gravity of space often have trouble with balance.

Jacob Bloomberg: Crew members may have difficulty turning corners, walking straight lines, things that are easy for us here on Earth are difficult during this period of adaptive change.

Bloomberg said it can take up to four weeks for astronauts to adapt to Earth's gravity after long space missions. He's working with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute to create a training system to speed up that transition. Astronauts walk on a treadmill with a moving base, while watching a projected image that's also moving. He simulates the astronaut's shaky balance by tilting the treadmill or the image they're watching.

Jacob Bloomberg: The training system hinges on this concept of learning to learn. You can train the brain to become more adaptable if you're exposed to training that pushes the system in an adaptive way.

In other words, when an astronaut's brain has already been challenged to deal with sensory conflicts, it's more prepared to deal with the transition back to Earth's gravity. Bloomberg said he also hopes to use his training system to help astronauts prepare for different forces of gravity that they might encounter in space.

Jacob Bloomberg: We generalize your ability to adapt to new environment so when you do land on a new environment, like Mars, or the moon, or an asteroid, you can adapt to that environment because you've experienced adaptive challenges in the past, through the training you've received.

He said that astronauts can adapt to the zero gravity of space in just a few days. But the readjustment to Earth depends on the length of the mission. Short-duration flights can take three to four days, while a six-month stint on the International Space Station can take four weeks.

Jacob Bloomberg: What you're trying to do is run up the adaptation curve so you can go through the transition as quickly as you can.

Bloomberg has plans to integrate his training system into the aerobic and resistive training programs astronauts already go through. He said the system is based on a simple idea, but it works.

Jacob Bloomberg: I think one of the exciting things about research is we take basic science discoveries, and we apply them in novel ways. This study has allowed us to take basic ideas of how the brain adapts, and learning to learn, and apply it to a new way of training astronauts.