Outer space on the upper campus

January 29, 2010

Ian Schleifer operates the Multi-Axis Tilt Device (MAT),  nicknamed the Hulk, in the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab. <br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay</i>

Ian Schleifer operates the Multi-Axis Tilt Device (MAT), nicknamed the Hulk, in the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab.
PHOTO BY Max Shay

Day in and day out, students and professors alike take on the Rabb steps. Most, however, are unaware that beneath those steps lies the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab.

Under the direction of Professor James Lackner (PSYCH) and Professor Paul DiZio (PSYCH) the lab was built in 1982 to study how people adapt to foreign environments like zero gravity. Since then, it has achieved somewhat mythical status on the Brandeis campus as the “NASA lab beneath the steps.”

Upon entering the Rabb graduate building, a quick trip down the stairs will bring a visitor to the door of the lab. If you don’t have the code to get in, the doorbell is your next best bet.

There is a certain submarine-like feel to the space – a converted basement littered with bits of electronics, a few imposing machines and a small galley-kitchen with a TV and well-used refrigerator. About 25 people staff the lab, ranging from full-time employees to undergraduate volunteers. Together, they are carrying out about eight different projects for, among other clients, the government, army and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center based in Boston.

Until about two years ago, the lab was funded by the National Aeronotics and Space Administration (NASA) and dedicated most of its time to carrying out projects for the administration. However, NASA cut funding to external programs in 2007, so today the lab has other groups seeking its resources.

“[There were] a lot of ideas we didn’t get to try out, and we’re tying them now,” DiZio said.

With a $2.3 million budget independent from the university’s, the lab has been able to flourish despite the financial crisis at Brandeis. In fact, there is a waiting list to use some of the equipment, Lackner said.

The specialized equipment draws a lot of attention to the lab, and the lab is well-known internationally, despite its relative anonymity on the Brandeis campus.

One of the more imposing pieces of equipment is the rotating room that inhabits its own corner of the basement. Requiring a staff of five to run, it looks a bit like a flying saucer, windowless with metal paneling on the outside. The inside is carpeted in tan commercial carpeting, and is full of tables, chairs, computers and a robotic arm.

“When we first opened the [rotating room] there was a fear that we were creating anti-gravity and that people would float away,” DiZio said.

He explained that the room actually creates artificial gravity based on centrifugal force generated by the spinning motion, a force that pulls a person into the wall of the room.

It is the only functioning room of its kind in the world.

“The physics in the room is just different from a normal environment,” DiZio said.

He explained one of the more routine experiments carried out in the room: A person is strapped down to a chair with a tabletop in front of them. On that table is a finger-sized target, and the subject is asked to keep reaching for that target with his or her finger. However, because the room is spinning, the initial reaches are off the mark, as the subject’s arm is forced off course because of the rotating motion.

“It’s a rather profound thing,” DiZio said, “You can’t just reach out and get it.”

The subject will get to the target eventually (at which point they change the direction that the room is spinning in), but the tries leading up to that point are what matter to Lackner and DiZio. DiZio said this is because they are looking to address the following question: “How does the reach work in the first place?”

Janna Kaplan shows off the “Rotating Room.” Located under  Rabb, the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab is home to various psychology experiments that deal with spatial orientation.  The lab, run by psychology professors Pal DiZio and and James Lackner, was funded by the National Aeronotics and Space Administration until 2007, when NASA cut the labs funding.  Currently the lab has a $2.3 million budget independent from the university’s, and still contributes to space exploration with findings about how gravety effects reach.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

Janna Kaplan shows off the “Rotating Room.” Located under Rabb, the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab is home to various psychology experiments that deal with spatial orientation. The lab, run by psychology professors Pal DiZio and and James Lackner, was funded by the National Aeronotics and Space Administration until 2007, when NASA cut the labs funding. Currently the lab has a $2.3 million budget independent from the university’s, and still contributes to space exploration with findings about how gravety effects reach.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Sitting in a spinning room can perhaps be fun for adrenaline junkies, but for NASA, the work the lab has done has played an important part in helping astronauts adjust to space, DiZio said. The International Space Station generates gravity by spinning, the same way the rotating room in Ashton Graybiel does. The way an astronaut would reach for a button in the space station can be replicated and studied in the rotating room and help NASA to better prepare astronauts for their time in space.

The room also helps researchers study motion sickness, something that affects both astronauts and regular people.

“If you spin people, there [are] going to be some nasty side effects,” DiZio said. But the room is helping them understand what’s behind motion sickness, and experimentation in the room has revealed that people can eventually adapt to faster rotation speeds than was previously thought possible.

Motion sickness figures prominently in another imposing piece of equipment, the Multi-Axis Tilt Device, nicknamed “the Hulk.” The machine, designed by the members of the lab, spins a subject on three axes, 360 degrees any way you can think of. The subject is strapped in, spun around while blindfolded, then asked which way is “up.” A barf bag and kill switch are included with every ride.

Subjects are often Brandeis students, Lackner explained.

Simon Zahn ’12 has been working in the lab since spring 2009, after taking a tour of the lab in his University Seminar (USEM) with Lackner.

“When I saw the type of experiments they worked on in the Graybiel lab, I was amazed, so I asked Dr. Lackner about possibly working in his lab,” Zahn said.

Zahn described a project he’s working on is a continuation of the reach and touch work done in the rotating room: “The initial research was on precision touch, and what I’m doing is trying to extrapolate that result out to other parts of the body, such as the elbow, the forehead, the hip, etcetera.”

This research is preformed in another room off of the main corridor is a black platform designed to study reach as it relates to the entire body. The room can be completely blacked out to create another level of disorientation in the motion experiments.

<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Howard Simpson, a research engineer at the lab, is the day-to-day overseer of this particular stage of the research. He explained that a subject is put on the platform with special markers on the body in strategic places so special cameras can track movement. Simpson said his team is looking at how people know where they are and how they are oriented to the space around them. They hope the research will eventually benefit people with diabetes who are losing sensation in their feet or people with balance disorders, by giving them other tools to maintain their balance.

Ultimately though, Simpson hopes his research will provide insight into control of robots. He explained that he is working towards making it possible for a person to, “identify an external robotic arm as if it were your own.”

“If you’ve seen Spider-man 2 with Dr. Octavius, [it’s] the same idea,” he said, referring to the half man, half robot character in the Spiderman comic books whose bottom half is attached to an octopus-like robotic structure he can control with his brain as if it were part of his body.

Additional robotics work is being done in Ashton-Graybiel, including integrating robotics with virtual reality. The head mounted display, a heavy piece of equipment that sits on a subject’s head like virtual reality games at arcades, creates a three-dimensional virtual reality, putting the wearer inside a mini cooper. The wearer can look towards any point in the room and the picture will behave as if you are turning around inside the car, complete with different people waiving at you from all sides. The subject is also wearing a black cap with dozens of thin wires coming out of it which are hooked up to a computer that allows the researchers to study how brainwaves work in virtual reality.

The ultimate goal of this project is like something out of “Lost in Space.” The same way Will Robinson is able to control the Robot virtually, Simpson is working to create a system where a person wearing the headset can virtually control a robot by reaching and reacting to controls in the virtual reality. If someone wants a chance to try out the virtual reality helmet, or go for a spin in the rotating room, they just need to call the lab to volunteer, Lackner said.

Zahn said he is thoroughly enjoying his time at the Ashton-Graybiel Lab, and he particularly enjoys its mythical status.

“Among some of my friends who are current juniors or seniors, or even some of my friends who graduated last year, it had a major ‘urban legend’ status,” he said. “ Most people were amazed that I had ever been in the lab, let alone worked there. Quite a few of them have begged me to take them into the lab before they graduate.”

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