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NASA designs nasal spray for motion sickness
Catching a cold in the frostiness of space is obvious. So why bother? Well, medical research in aerospace can also have essential impact on our lives here on earth. Surprisingly in the first place. So that’s why the Austrian Space Forum decided to bring some light into the topic “Space medicine”. This column should give interested readers entertaining and informative insights for everyday life. Infotainment to go!
5th of March 1969, Apollo 9, Earth’s orbit. Space-greenhorn Russell “Rusty” Schweickart is on the way to his historical transfer from Apollo’s commando capsule into the Lunar landing module. Everything’s fine, except Rusty’s face. It seems to skip through the colors of the rainbow back and forth. He feels like a groom at the Lord’s table. It got him. Motion Sickness, travel sickness, seasickness or landsickness (for seamen on shore leave), airsickness, car sickness, simulation sickness or spoken in plain medical terms: Kinetosis (from the greek word for “moving”, kinein) The symptoms? Nausea, emesis, sweating, dizziness, high pulse rate. All at once.
In an interview with Rebecca Wright on the 19th of October 1999 in Houston, Texas, he explained it as follows:
»[…] This was early in the morning before getting ready to go into the lunar module. I sort of slowed down to try and take it easy, but once that process of malaise starts going, you know, it kind of has a natural dynamic. So suddenly I had to barf, and I’m grabbing for a bag, barfed in the bag, and, I mean, that’s not a good feeling. But, of course, you feel better after you barf, like anytime you get motion sickness, you feel better after it, but you don’t like to do it. Of course, that was sort of a warning shot. I mean, you know, oooh, we got a problem here? […]« (1)
Poor Rusty. There was only one astronaut who outclassed him. Frank Boreman who thereby godfathered the upper level of a sickness-scale at the NASA. The spectrum reached from “mild malaise” to “Frank vomiting”.
But what’s triggering such body reactions in well trained and fearless men like Frank Boreman or Rusty Schweickart?
Our organ of equilibrium has its place in the inner ear. The vestibular system contains three arching canals providing information about the three dimensions. Right and left, forwards and backwards and up and down. So drifting in zero gravity means hard work for this earthbound system. Optical stimuli running form the eyes via the opticus nerve to the occipital lobe (data center for the eyes) have a critical hand in baffling the central nervous system. Think about visual illusions like the imaginations of M. C. Escher. Watched too long may give you a little glimpse of what occurred to Boreman and Schweickart. Especially when they are moving.
Over-activated chemoreceptors in the brain respond with defense reactions of all kind. Our bodies are trained the upright walk particularly in two dimensions. Unlike our ancestors in the trees we strolled through the steppe watching out for something to eat at the horizon. Overexcited sensations like flying around with no ups and downs confuses our autonomic nervous system. Dizziness, nausea and emesis are the consequence.
Very dangerous if you just want to take a little walk around your space shuttle. Vomit and closed helmets are archenemies.
Dr. Cox’s Chair
Your are absolutely right asking: “Wouldn’t astronauts be trained BEFORE they leave our planet?” Yes, of course. Strapped on a chair that rotates remorselessly until the test person reacts … or his/her entrails.
Given that this “rotating chair” comes from a complete other field of science gives the hard work of NASA a little smuggy note.
The so called “Cox’s Chair” was a therapeutical instrument for psychiatric patients in the middle of the 19thcentury. Dr. Joseph Cos was a well known British physician who commissioned his life in the service of medical research. He experimented with swinging beds and rotating boxes to get manic and psychotic patients some relief. In the advertisement of the third edition of his bestselling book “Practical Observations of Insanity”, 1813, he declared:
»He [Cox] has persisted in the application of motion, in various directions and modes, by means of swings and other machinery, to certain classes of maniacs; and is convinced that no remedy is capable of effecting so much with so little hazard, and is decidedly of opinion that in almost every case it will produce perfect quiescence, allay all irritation, silence the most vociferous and loquacious, diminish that determination of blood towards the head, and that excessive heat of the surface, which so frequently obtain in some species of mania, will assist the action of other remedies and medicines, and procure sleep after every other anodyne has failed.« (2)
He felt confident that he had found an universal remedy for the mentally ill.
What a close shave. The first lectures called “studies for pharmacists” were implemented 1875 at European universities some years later. They steered medicine in a more humane direction then.
“Magic bullet” Scopolamin
Top pharmaceutical dog fighting motion sickness at “zero gravity” parabolic flights is Scopolamin. It helps diluting emesis (antiemetic) and dizziness (antivertiginetic). But there are in fact some displeasing side effects. Dosed to high it leads to apathy and aboulomania. That’s why it was in vogue as a truth serum for secret service institutions around the world until the 1950ies.
To antagonize this condition the NASA flight doctors combine Scopolamin with ScopDex, a dextroamphetamin, to stimulate the astronauts.
So you can see that dosing the “magic bullet” is one of the bigger problems with this drug. And that’s why NASA develops a nasal spray right now. The medicament should enter the physiological circuit through the mucous membrane of the nose. Why? Because it works faster and more effective than taken the oral way. INSCOP, intranasal Scopolamin, name of the awaited panacea should be part of every Astronaut’s Overall in the near future. (3)
Anyway, if the first aggravating signs of motion sickness show up, a quick compression of a nasal spray should save the astronaut’s day at the ISS for sure. If someone at the NASA labs comes up with an idea how to mix the aroma of lime or jasmine into the anti-barf-brew it would have a calming effect on the stressed mind of the space travelers as well.
Then Rusty Schweickart’s and Frank “Vomiting” Boreman’s stomaches wouldn’t have cannonaded “for nothing” to push the boundaries of mankind one step ahead.
(1) Schweickart, Russell L., Oral history, Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/s-t.htm
(2) Joseph Cox, „Pracitcal Observations on Insanity“, 1813, London: Baldwin and Underwood, https://www.perceptionweb.com/perception/perc0305/editorial.pdf
(3) Medical Daily, Amber Moore, “NASA develops nasal spray for motion sickness”, 13. Oktober 2012, https://www.medicaldaily.com/articles/12689/20121013/nasa-develops-nasal-spray-motion-sickness.htm
(4) Packing for Mars, Mary Roach, Oneworld Publications 2010, ISBN: 987-1-85168-780-0
© FStummer, 26.11.2012
Florian Stummer studies medicine, is an accomplished science journalist and writes his orthopaedic degree dissertation at the moment.
This article is available in: German
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