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Exp Brain Res. 2013 Apr;226(1):95-106. doi: 10.1007/s00221-013-3414-7. Epub 2013 Feb 9.

Weightlessness alters up/down asymmetries in the perception of self-motion.

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  • 1Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Biomechanics of Movement, Université Libre de Bruxelles, CP 640, 50 Av F Roosevelt, Brussels, Belgium.


In the present study, we investigated the effect of weightlessness on the ability to perceive and remember self-motion when passing through virtual 3D tunnels that curve in different direction (up, down, left, right). We asked cosmonaut subjects to perform the experiment before, during and after long-duration space flight aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and we manipulated vestibular versus haptic cues by having subjects perform the task either in a rigidly fixed posture with respect to the space station or during free-floating, in weightlessness. Subjects were driven passively at constant speed through the virtual 3D tunnels containing a single turn in the middle of a linear segment, either in pitch or in yaw, in increments of 12.5°. After exiting each tunnel, subjects were asked to report their perception of the turn's angular magnitude by adjusting, with a trackball, the angular bend in a rod symbolizing the outside view of the tunnel. We demonstrate that the strong asymmetry between downward and upward pitch turns observed on Earth showed an immediate and significant reduction when free-floating in weightlessness and a delayed reduction when the cosmonauts were firmly in contact with the floor of the station. These effects of weightlessness on the early processing stages (vestibular and optokinetics) that underlie the perception of self-motion did not stem from a change in alertness or any other uncontrolled factor in the ISS, as evidenced by the fact that weightlessness had no effect on the perception of yaw turns. That the effects on the perception of pitch may be partially overcome by haptic cues reflects the fusion of multisensory cues and top-down influences on visual perception.

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