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April 13, 1999

Renee Juhans
Headquarters, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/358-1712)

Eileen Hawley/Ann Hutchison
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
(Phone: 281/483-5111)

Release: N99-19

Neurolab Team to Discuss Results, Potential Health Benefits

Scientists and astronauts will gather in Washington this week to discuss space research that may lead to better treatments for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease, motion sickness, balance disorders, insomnia and other ailments.

Media representatives are invited to attend the symposium. To schedule an interview with Neurolab researchers, reporters should contact Renee Juhans at 202/358-1712.

More than 20 researchers will present the latest findings from last year's Neurolab space shuttle mission at a symposium on April 14-16 at the National Academy of Sciences, 2101 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Members of the Neurolab crew also will share their unique perspective on the mission and provide their view of the science results.

Neurolab, NASA's contribution to the Decade of the Brain, focused on expanding understanding of the brain and the central nervous system. Its disciplined and focused studies show a strong promise for improving life on Earth. The following selected findings represent a few examples of the knowledge that will evolve from the mission:

* Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy. Patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy may benefit from knowledge gained from a study that looked at how the brain maintains a sense of direction. For example, if you have parked your car in the center of town and then walked several blocks to run errands, how do you find your way back to the car? By retracing your steps (path integration)?

By remembering the trees, shops and parks you passed on the way (landmark navigation)? Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy are fundamentally linked to damage to the hippocampus area of the brain. Information from Neurolab on how this region of the brain processes spatial and navigational information may lead to improved strides in the fight against these disorders.

* Brain Injuries. The human brain has an innate understanding of how the world works, which allows it to anticipate movements and allows us to react appropriately. For example, when a ball is thrown toward you, your brain interprets the speed and location of the ball and commands your arm into a position to catch it. People whose brains have been damaged by injury or illness lack this innate knowledge. During the Neurolab Ball Catch experiment, the astronauts' brains had to readapt to the change in the speed of a ball no longer controlled by gravity. The results from this study should lead to new diagnostic and rehabilitation tools to help people with brain injuries.

* Muscle Atrophy. Aging or illness can cause muscles to waste, or atrophy. Investigations have found that young animals need normal weight-bearing activity, such as walking or running, to establish muscle growth. In addition, a particular thyroid hormone is required to stimulate muscles to move, allowing us to run and walk. Studies conducted during Neurolab indicate that a natural reduction in this hormone, which occurs during aging, may play a key role in the wasting of muscle. This information may help develop preventive measures to benefit those who suffer from muscle atrophy.

* Sleep Deprivation or Disruption. On Earth and in space, some people suffer from sleep deprivation or disruption. Sleep studies conducted during Neurolab are expected to benefit not only astronauts but also others who have trouble sleeping, including shift workers, the elderly and people traveling across time zones. Data from the studies will provide insight into the causes of sleep disruption and whether melatonin could be an effective sleep aid.

More information is available on the World Wide Web at URL:

Neurolab investigations were carried out during a 16-day mission in April and May 1998 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture and the Canadian, European, French, German and Japanese space agencies.


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