Wayfinding: How space flight affects astronauts' brains
The Canadian Wayfinding experiment aims to discover how astronauts get their bearings and find their way around by looking at their brains while they perform spatial orientation tasks.
In order to create an accurate mental map of its position and surroundings, the brain processes visual, self-sensing, and vestibular (inner ear) information.
Living in a weightless environment like the International Space Station (ISS) challenges an astronaut's internal orientation system. In microgravity, the brain cannot rely on the same signals to map out the location of important features like space modules or emergency escape hatches. Astronauts' orientation and navigation challenges can also affect their ability to perform complex operations in space, like robotics tasks.
Wayfinding's results will teach us more about structural and functional changes that the brain undergoes when working in these tricky conditions. This will help astronauts better prepare for and recover from space missions.
Wayfinding's main goals are to:
- measure the changes in orientation skills brought on by microgravity aboard the ISS
- look for modifications in brain pathways involved in orientation tasks, like getting from one place to another
- observe how the brain re-adapts upon an astronaut's return to Earth
Orientation relies in part on the correct working of the vestibular system in the inner ear. This experiment will improve our knowledge of medical conditions affecting movement, posture and spatial orientation skills.
Its findings could be beneficial for patients on Earth who suffer from balance disorders like Ménière's disease, which causes severe dizziness, and help shed light on neural degeneration related to aging, which is known to impact the ability to orient in new surroundings.
How it works
Twelve participants will undergo three testing sessions, with the first one occurring six months before departure. Each session will have three parts:
- A behavioural assessment, administered on a computer, evaluates the ability to navigate by using different orientation strategies such as tracking the position of “landmarks,” or retracing one's steps to return to a starting location.
- A neuroimaging session uses medical imaging to record brain structures and activity while the astronaut performs spatial orientation tasks.
- A neuropsychological assessment measures different functions that are important for spatial orientation such as attention, perception, and memory skills.
Astronauts complete this sequence again two weeks after their return to Earth and six months later. By comparing the data, researchers can link differences in brain structure and function to changes in orientation skills.
Some people become sick while riding in a car, plane, or boat. Astronauts can experience space adaptation syndrome, a type of motion sickness with symptoms ranging from mild nausea and dizziness to vomiting. Many astronauts wear anti-nausea patches on their skin to prevent these effects during launch and return.
The Wayfinding team began collecting data in October 2017, and the experiment is expected to conclude in 2026.
- Dr. Giuseppe Iaria, University of Calgary
- Dr. Ford Burles, University of Calgary
- Dr. Simon Duchesne, Université Laval
- BISE: Bodies In the Space Environment
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