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Psychology researcher partners with Canadian Space Agency

Giuseppe Iaria’s Wayfinding project will work with astronauts to see how spaceflight affects spatial orientation and navigation skills

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will have the opportunity to participate in Giuseppe Iaria's Wayfinding project as part of his six-month mission in 2018-19. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Sean Myers

Anyone who has watched a science fiction movie about traveling in space knows that the weightless environment of microgravity on a space ship affects your ability to navigate and orient yourself. But in real life, the impact of microgravity on an astronaut’s brain both in space and after returning to earth has received very little scientific attention.

Until now, that is.

The Canadian Space Agency has announced funding for Giuseppe Iaria’s Wayfinding project, which will look at the impact of weightlessness on the spatial orientation and navigation skills of astronauts.

“No one’s really looked at this before,” says Iaria, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Psychology, and principal investigator of the Wayfinding study. “There have been scientific studies investigating the impact of space travel on the bodies of astronauts, but nothing assessing the impact of spaceflight on brain function and spatial orientation.”

Specifically, Iaria will be looking at the effects of microgravity on the neural mechanisms that are responsible for spatial orientation and navigation skills. This is an unique opportunity in that Iaria will be studying subjects with healthy brain function who will be going to an environment where there will be very little vestibular information due to microgravity, and vestibular information is known to be very important for our sense of direction and balance. There is no other way to simulate this type of study on earth, so the results could also eventually benefit patients affected by neurological conditions and neural degeneration related to ageing.

In the past, some, but not all astronauts have complained about having difficulty with spatial orientation when they return to Earth. Iaria’s task will be to pinpoint how the brain will re-establish the proper processing of vestibular information for the purpose of spatial orientation when gravity is reintroduced.

“No one knows how long lasting the neurological effects of microgravity are,” says Iaria who is also affiliated with the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. “We also don’t know what the effects are of going on a second trip into space and back. I think it’s a pretty big assumption that everything just goes back to normal. As a scientist I would like to test that.”

Iaria and his team, including graduate student Ford Burles, who together conceived the proposal for funding, will now develop the details of how the experiment will work. They plan to take MRI scans of the brains of the participating astronauts while they complete a series of spatial tasks before they leave for space, and they will repeat this when they return. Iaria’s team will then analyze the data and try to draw some conclusions for use in treatment.

Testing is slated to begin in 2018, which means Canadian Astronaut David Saint-Jacques will be able to participate before and after his recently announced six-month mission to the International Space Station in 2018-19. Iaria will recruit a total of 12 astronauts with missions planned to the space station.

Ultimately, the research team is hopeful the results of this study will benefit more than just the space program.

“We know many people suffer from dysfunctions of the vestibular system,” says Iaria. “My hope at the end of this is to develop a tool that can mitigate the loss of useful vestibular information for both astronauts in space and patients on Earth.”