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Image of the Week: Avoiding Space Sickness

18 Dec, 2015

L0037305 Packaging for Marzine anti-nausea drug

With all the excitement around the launch of astronaut Tim Peake – the first Brit to visit the international space station – earlier this week, we thought it was the perfect time to use this image.

The picture shows the packaging for an anti-sickness medication that gained popularity when it was chosen by NASA to be used by astronauts on the first flight to the Moon during the Apollo programme. “Marzine” is the brand name it was sold under in France, while it was known as “Marezine” in the US. It is actually cyclizine hydrochrloride and was first discovered by the American division of Buroughs-Wellcome as they researched a group of antihistimines.

So why might you need an anti-sickness drug in space? Well apart from wanting to avoid the practical problem of vomiting in micro-gravity (it could get messy!), there is also the issue of Space Adaptation Sickness, or “space-sickness”.

On Earth, our vestibular system allows us to keep balanced, know whether we are upright or leaning at an angle, allowing us to keep balanced while moving. In each ear we have a network of three looped tubes, which are filled with liquid. Depending on the way you tilt, swivel or nod your head, the liquid stimulate microscopic hair cells, which allow your brain to work out where you are. The reason you can feel dizzy after spinning round on the spot is that it can take a little while for the liquid to settle down, and while it swooshes around a bit, it is still activating those tiny hair cells, making you feel like you’re still spinning.

If you’re in orbit in space, you don’t feel the effect of gravity, and this makes life difficult for the vestibular system, because it relies on gravity pulling the liquid down into a settled state when you’re no longer moving. The liquid in these tubes in the ear is floating around – just like Tim Peake in the space station – but in doing so it is activating the hair cells that send signals to the brain to let you know that you’re upside down, or leaning, or moving. These signals, mixed with the information that you get visually, may contradict each other, leaving you feeling (and occasionally being) quite sick.

Space sickness affects around half of all space travellers, though it can be hard to predict who will get it. Being good on rollercoasters, or on the parabolic training flights (sometimes known as the “vomit comet” for the same reason) doesn’t seem to correlate with how well you will fare in space. Thankfully, after a few days in space the body tends to adapt to its new and unusual surroundings and the sickness subsides. On return to Earth however, astronauts are advised not to make any swift head movements since they have to re-learn how to move with gravity again, and it can take a while for the body to get used to it.

So here’s hoping Tim Peake is not suffering in space too much, or that he at least feels better by Christmas!

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. Over 100,000 high resolution images from our historical collections are now free to use under the Creative Commons-Attribution only (CC-BY) licence.

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