Future Smartphones Might “Zap” Away Motion Sickness

September 21, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Merry-Go-Round ride at a fairground
Photo credit: Ian Tresman/CC BY 4.0

A commercial device that plugs into a smartphone may be able to use electricity to eliminate motion sickness within the next 10 years.

You’re dying to go on that cross country road trip with your friends, but know you won’t be able to handle it without large quantities of Dramamine. Motion sickness is no fun, and it can turn those already stressful travel days into sheer nightmares. Now, once again, technology might swoop in to make our lives a little easier. A device being developed by researchers at Imperial College London could end the misery of motion sickness by zapping it away with mild electrical currents.

You might be one of the lucky ones that only experiences mild motion sickness when riding a rollercoaster or traveling by boat, but about three in ten people suffer from more severe motion sickness, resulting in intense dizziness and nausea or cold sweats. Interestingly, people with balance problems seem to be unaffected by many of the symptoms of motion sickness, which is what initially inspired Dr. Qadeer Arshad to further delve into the issue and conduct the research.

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The brave study participants agreed to be strapped to a spinning chair in order to induce motion sickness. They were rotated at 72 degrees per second, or one full revolution every five seconds, with the chair tilted at 17 degrees — nothing too intense, but enough to induce motion sickness. It allowed the researchers to determine each participant’s susceptibility to motion sickness, so they could then measure the effectiveness of the electric zaps for varying intensities of motion sickness.

After this was determined, the participants saddled up in the spinning chair once again, this time riding with electrodes attached to their heads. Researchers applied mild electric currents, known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), to the scalp, causing the brain to suppress responses in the area that processes motion signals. The participants reported that they were less likely to feel nauseous and felt relief from the symptoms of motion sickness much quicker than before.

Professor Michael Gresty, an expert on motion sickness, collaborated with Imperial College London for the study. He explains that the reason people experience the symptoms of motion sickness is because the brain experiences confusion as it tries to determine what position the body is in: “You imagine being on a bicycle of a motorbike; you go round a corner, you lean into the corner which remains perfectly upright in physics. You don’t do that in a car, you don’t do that on a ship - you’re actually struggling to find out what is upright and what’s the best way of dealing with it.”

Arshad says the next step in the research is to determine how well the technology can work in real world settings, and then develop a commercial device. They’re confident that, within the next ten years, they can develop a device that consumers could plug right into their smartphones and deliver mild electrical currents through the headphone jack. Since the electrical currents are so small, there’s no reason to expect any unwanted side effects.

As if our smartphones didn’t have enough crazy features, in the next decade we may be able to use them to deliver electric zaps to our brains, defeating motion sickness once and for all.

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