The G-REACH team was chosen by the European Space Agency’s Education Office to conduct experiments on the effects of weightlessness while in a parabolic flight. These flights are organised by Novespace, a subsidiary of the French Space Agency CNES. Last week, flights took place in Bordeaux, France.
What does the experiment involve?
“Simply put, we’re looking at how much effort is needed for the brain to initiate a movement. With any move we make, our brain tries to anticipate how much force is needed in each muscle involved. Take for example the motion of raising your arm to grab a book. When something changes in our body or our environment, we’re suddenly unable to execute this simple movement. Our brain then has to adapt its anticipated effort to compensate and successfully execute the movement as efficiently as possible. Our research will study the correlation between precision and efficiency and the importance of visual information in adapting our movements.”
Why is a state of weightlessness necessary?
“In a weightless state, everything about our surroundings changes in an instant. The moment gravity disappears, a normal movement of your arm suddenly has a very different effect. By placing healthy test subjects in this situation, we can study their capacity to adapt their movement patterns in this new situation.”
Why are you conducting research on this subject?
“We want to get a more complete picture of our brain’s capacity for adapting. We learn more about the brain this way, and this is important for our fundamental knowledge. This knowledge might also be useful for patients recovering from a stroke, for example, because the patient has to adapt to an entirely new situation.”
What findings do you expect?
“Based on previous research, we expect that your brain will first have to adjust the precision of the movement before being able to maximise its efficiency. We know that visual information is crucial in improving the precision of our movements. So we expect that first the precision, and then the efficiency of our movements, will adapt to weightlessness only after receiving adequate visual input.”
What was it like on the parabolic flight?
“I was on board for one of three flights. We made a schedule where four new people were on each flight, because we wanted to record observations for the maximum number of test subjects. I was really nervous before the flight. We’d spent a year working towards this moment and now it was time! It was so tense, and I didn’t really know what to expect because everyone who had already been up found it an indescribable experience. The instant that we first experienced weightlessness was incredible. You’re floating, and every move you make feels unfamiliar to what you’re used to. ‘It’s a bit like diving, or the drop on a roller coaster, but that doesn’t quite capture the sensation!”
How do you feel about the whole experience?
“It’s a very unique project, and it taught us a lot about project management and designing an experiment under extraordinary circumstances. Our team spent a year developing the experiment down to the finest details, because you only get one chance to do it when you’re airborne. In the end everything went well. We’re satisfied and are looking forward to analysing the data to see the results.”
In addition to Emma Raat, the other members of the G-REACH Team were Zeb Jonkers, Charlotte Viëtor, Guido Maquelin, and Brandon Rasman. Last year, an Erasmus MC team that included Daphne van der Putte and Anne Arntz was also in France to take part in the parabolic flights.