Motion Sickness Can Be Relieved By Applying An Electric Current To Your Scalp

Volunteer in a motion sickness simulator with the electrical current applied to his scalp. Imperial College London.

Seasickness has blighted many a landlubber over the years. But even the hardiest seafarer has been known to succumb to the motion of the ocean. The cause of seasickness has puzzled scientists for years, but a team from Imperial College London think they've made a device to ease the travel woes of a weary sailor.

A common theory for motion sickness is that nausea occurs when the movement of the body doesn't quite match up with what the eyes are seeing. The researchers decided to try and combat this with a small electric current applied to the scalp, which affected the regions of the brain associated with motion. The signals that this region of the brain received were consequently dampened. This in turn reduced the intensity of confusion the brain experienced between conflicting motor and visual signals, decreasing the overall feeling of motion sickness. You can read the results of this dizzying study in Neurology.

For the study, the test subjects sat in a chair that was rotated to induce nausea. "It's like a barbecue spit roast," said Dr. Qadeer Arshad from Imperial College London, who led the research, to IFLScience. Each candidate was put on the chair twice. The first time without the device, and the second time with half the group using the device and the other half not. 

The test subjects that never experienced the electric currents had a very sorry time of it. Not only was there no respite from the nausea, but it was actually worse the second time round. This is because people have a higher susceptibility to motion sickness if they experience dizzying conditions shortly after a first dose of nausea.

However, the half who had the device switched on during the second run felt dramatically different. "We found that it took people a lot longer to develop sickness," Qadeer commented to IFLScience. "The device produces compatible results to what we can currently get with the best drugs."

The team has tested it on 20 people so far. This might not seem like that many, but Qadeer explains why: "It's very difficult to recruit for motion sickness!" Not surprising, given that the candidates have to be willing to be spun around to the point of nausea. 

Running a small current through the brain might sound scary, but this technique has been used many times, for example in the rehabilitation of patients after a stroke, and in memory and attention studies.  

"It's a very small current," says Arshad, "so there's no side effects that we know of."

The machine looks rather like something out of Frankenstein's laboratory at the moment, but the researchers hope that one day it will be a simple device you can discretely plug into the headphone jack of your phone.

And it isn't just limited to seasickness: The device, in theory, could be used to tackle any type of motion sickness. In fact, the team's next venture is to test how effective their motion sickness therapy is for virtual reality disorientation.

Image in text: Imperial College London.

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