Canada's last space research project on a U.S. space shuttle has a down-to-earth goal: to delve into the role our feet play in keeping our balance as we age.
Known as Hypersole, the experiment began when Dr. Leah Bent of Guelph University learned that some astronauts experience tingling in their feet.
“On Earth, our skin sensitivity decreases as we age. One of the interesting things about the skin during space travel is that we see changes in the opposite direction, skin sensitivity may actually increase,” she explains.
Funded by the Canadian Space Agency, Hypersole will help scientists better understand how the decline in skin sensitivity in our feet leads to a loss of balance — and consequently, a greater number of falls — in the elderly.
Dr. Bent will use tiny nylon filaments and a vibration device to put astronauts to the ultimate “tickle test” to see which parts of their feet become more sensitive before and after spaceflight, and how that might affect their balance.
Three astronauts have already participated in the experiment. Dr. Bent and her team will test six more before and after the last flights of the shuttle in November 2010 and winter 2011.
In addition to the aging population, Hypersole could help astronauts themselves by providing more information on how they maintain their balance while living and working in space.
When asked if she has any advice keeping your feet and skin receptors functioning and healthy, Dr. Bent says, “Well, my Nana is 97 and she rubs cream into the bottom of her feet every day and every night. And I tell her, that's why you're still able to walk around.
“I'm sure it helps, since there are changes in the integrity of our skin as we age. So get yourself a good bottle of cream.”