This review summarizes what has been learned from studies of human neurovestibular system in weightless conditions, including balance and locomotion, gaze control, vestibular-autonomic function and spatial orientation, and gives some examples of the potential Earth benefits of this research. Results show that when astronauts and cosmonauts return from space flight both the peripheral and central neural processes are physiologically and functionally altered. There are clear distinctions between the virtually immediate adaptive compensations to weightlessness and those that require longer periods of time to adapt. However, little is known to date about the adaptation of sensory-motor functions to long-duration space missions in weightlessness and to the transitions between various reduced gravitational levels, such as on the Moon and Mars. Results from neurovestibular research in space have substantially enhanced our understanding of the mechanisms and characteristics of postural, gaze, and spatial orientation deficits, analogous to clinical cases of labyrinthine- defective function. Also, space neurosciences research has participated in the development and application of significant new technologies, such as video recording and processing of three-dimensional eye movements and posture, hardware for the unencumbered measurement of head and body movement, and procedures for investigating otolith function on Earth. In particular, devices such as centrifugation or off-vertical axis rotation could enhance clinical neurological testing because it provides linear acceleration which specifically stimulates the otolith organs in a frequency range close to natural head and body movement.
Keywords: sensory-motor function, gravity, microgravity, adaptation, posture, movement, spatial orientation, neurosciences
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