In 1998, NASA funded a multi-million dollar game of catch.

Angela Cesere
Astronaut David Williams describes the effects of optical illusions, like the one shown, on the brain at the Medical Science Building 1 yesterday as part of the “Space Neuroscience Research: Pushing the Frontier” presentation. (FOREST CASEY/Daily)

During a presentation at the University yesterday, Dave Williams, a Canadian astronaut, discussed the neurological research he did on the STS-90 Neurolab space shuttle.

“These experiments can give us insight into many clinical problems on Earth, like how the brain responds to disease,” Williams said.

In one sensory motor experiment, Williams and a team of astronauts worked to find out how the body reacts differently when catching a ball in space compared to on Earth.

“On Earth, the body develops an internal model for catching a ball. We wanted to see if the body would adapt a new model in space,” Williams said.

The team discovered that the human body took several days to adapt to the new zero-gravity surroundings and to develop a new model for catching the ball.

This experiment is part of a series that tries to uncover whether astronauts’ recognition of depends on their assumed direction of which way is up.

The precise role of Williams as a neuroscientist was to study cells in the brain of lab rats. Prior to the Neurolab mission, scientists didn’t know if specific cells fired neural signals in relation to the rest of the room or if the location was distinct, as in it’s longitude and latitude.

Surprisingly, the findings showed neural activity in the rat was not dependent on the relative surroundings. This specific neural firing happened without the visual cues of the rest of the room or cues provided by gravity — a momentous discovery. Neurons seemed to “remember” certain places without relying on the typical information received from the environment.

The shuttle launched in April and orbited the Earth once every 45 minutes for 16 days. During that time, Williams and a team of other astronauts conducted 25 experiments to see how the nervous system adapts to space and responds to change.

A second experiment involved sleep physiology. Williams’s group wired themselves to machines every night to record brain waves while sleeping. They discovered sleep patterns in space undergo a definite change.

The usual eight-hour requirement for sleep on Earth was reduced to six hours in space, and the previous hypothesis that people don’t snore in space because of the lack of gravity was also disproved.

Williams grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada and attended McGill University. He earned a medical degree and became an emergency physician before applying to become a NASA astronaut.

“I wanted to be an astronaut ever since I was a little kid, but I didn’t think it was possible because I grew up in Canada in the 1960’s and they didn’t have a human space flight program then,” Williams said.

After being accepted out of more than 5,000 applicants for astronaut training in 1992, Williams spent two years in training for the Neurolab mission. He rode a T-38 twin-engine plane to prepare for traveling in space at mach 25 — approximately 19,000 miles per hour.

On Williams second spaceflight, STS-118, he will help build new parts for the International Space Station for 11 days. He will also perform three spacewalks.

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