Ever wonder why some people are inherently clumsy? Or why some people are prone to motion sickness? This March break, children visiting the Ontario Science Centre can participate in two new Waterloo studies to help researchers solve these and other mysteries relating to the human body.
The studies are part of the Biomechanics: The Machine Inside exhibit, which gives visitors a hands-on look at the marvels of natural engineering that drive human and animal movement. The exhibit explores the way humans, animals and plants are built and how they function in response to the forces of nature.
“Lots is known about the way binocular vision— meaning vision in both eyes —affects development of perception and motor skills up until preschool age, but after that really no studies have been done,” said Ewa Niechwiej-Szwedo, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology who is leading one of the studies. “Binocular vision continues to develop into the early teenage years. Right now there is a major gap in our understanding.”
Binocular vision provides important sensory input for many activities that involve visual-motor coordination, and can impact everything from learning how to read, success playing sports, or perceiving speed of other cars while driving. Children interested in participating in the study will have their vision tested and take part in two tasks designed to measure hand-eye coordination and motion perception.
“Underlying vision problems may be responsible for many subtle coordination issues, and difficulties with school-related work,” said Niechwiej-Szwedo. “If we can better understand how both eyes work together, we can develop approaches to treat people who otherwise may go through life thinking they are just clumsy or terrible at sports.”
In search of the balance genome
More adventurous guests between the ages of five and 80 are invited to strap on a virtual reality head piece to have their balance tested as part of a study looking how the brain makes sense of the world. Researchers hope to use the information to explain why some people are prone to motion sickness.
“We can use virtual reality to manipulate sensory information,” said Michael Barnett-Cowan, a professor of kinesiology and lead researcher on the study. “To maintain your balance, your brain relies on different sources of sensory information. If your brain experiences a delay in integrating stimuli, it can cause loss of balance or sensations of motion sickness in some people. We can mimic this delay using virtual reality.”
Researchers believe a certain genome may be the culprit as to why only some people experience the unpleasant sensations. It’s estimated that up to 30 per cent of the population carry this genome.
“The goal is to determine how much our balance control and motion sickness is linked to our genetics,” said Barnett-Cowan.
Study participants will be asked to give a salvia sample so researchers can see if there is a link between their DNA and the balance and motion sickness measures.
“Down the road, identifying a genome linked to balance will help health practitioners identify those individuals at risk for falls— which is a serious concern with an aging population,” said Barnett-Cowan.
More immediately, the study will give researchers an idea about the relationship between balance control and motion sickness in virtual reality. Even today’s best technology can cause feelings of nausea for many users.
“Virtual reality is a powerful tool that can be used for everything from stroke rehabilitation to training pilots and athletes,” said Barnett-Cowan. “Research like this will give software developers concrete information to improve programs and enable more people to use it without adverse effects—exponentially increasing its ability to improve health and well-being.”
More family-friendly activities
In addition to live research, the Department of Kinesiology will host a variety of family friendly activities throughout the duration of the exhibit. Children can learn about the brain wearing their own brain hats, dress up as scientists and pose for pictures in a photo booth, or try controlling a model car remotely with only their arm muscles. A full list of activities and the dates they are offered is available on the Kinesiology website.
A 20 per cent admission discount to the Biomechanics: The Machine Inside exhibit is available for all Waterloo faculty, staff, alumni and students. To purchase tickets in advance call 1-888-696-1110 and use the code 10510.