Researching a workout device to help keep the balance system in shape

Astronauts on extended missions go into space with a spring in their step but rarely return from the International Space Station (ISS) walking steady.

“We want to develop a training device to counter the effects while in space and help astronauts recover more quickly upon return to Earth,” said Dr. Jacob Bloomberg, a researcher on the National Space Biomedical Research Institute’s (NSBRI) neurovestibular adaptation team.

Returning astronauts walk with an unstable gait and wide stance and can take almost two weeks to fully recover their footing after a long-duration flight on the ISS. A new treadmill training system being researched could help shorten or remove post-flight balance problems and eventually help elderly patients and others with similar problems.

Bloomberg and his team are using a new, integrated research protocol to discover and test ways to counter the ill effects of space flight on the balance and walking systems. The goal of the research is to develop an in-flight treadmill training system that will improve the brain’s ability to readapt to gravity environments whether it is a return to Earth or a landing on Mars. In addition to developing training programs, Bloomberg is working on better ways to evaluate balance and walking function in returning astronauts.

“Rather than study individual systems in isolation we’re looking at how multiple systems interact and adapt during space flight to cause balance problems,” said Bloomberg, senior research scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “We are working to understand how multiple, interdependent full-body sensory-motor systems are integrated to produce a complex behavior like walking.”

A person’s performance on a unique series of integrated tests – an obstacle course, a treadmill and visual acuity test – will help the researchers develop solutions to not only balance and mobility, but also eye coordination. These tests will serve to evaluate the effectiveness of in-flight interventions designed to reduce the negative effects of space flight on post-flight balance and walking function.

During testing, subjects walk on a treadmill while head, eye and body movements are recorded with a video-based motion capture system. At the same time, other sensors record body accelerations and the vertical forces that occur during each foot-fall; all this while subjects identify symbols on a computer screen to measure visual acuity. With this unique set-up, Bloomberg and his group can determine how the nervous system responds and adapts to different alterations in sensory input during walking. To complement the treadmill test, the obstacle course serves to help understand the practical implications of sensory-motor changes that lead to post-flight walking disturbances.

“This work will motivate the next generation of treadmill devices used on the International Space Station. While astronauts are training to maintain aerobic capacity and muscle strength, they will also be training their brains to readapt to a gravity environment,” Bloomberg said. “Everyone is told they need to exercise to maintain their heart and muscles, but rarely do people train to keep their balance system in shape.”

Further development of these testing protocols will not only help develop better tools to diagnose problems for elderly patients and others with balance problems, but may also help train them to overcome these problems.

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The NSBRI, funded by NASA, is a consortium of institutions studying the health risks related to long-duration space flight. The Institute’s research and education projects take place at more than 70 institutions across the United States.

Media Contact

Liesl Owens NSBRI

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