DOCTORS TRY NASA METHODS TO FIGHT NAUSEA
By John Beifuss, The Commercial Appeal
Printed with Permission
THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL
SUNDAY, February 18, 1996
One of the drawbacks of space travel is that astronauts routinely suffer from astronausea.
To combat this outer space motion sickness, NASA developed miniaturized monitoring devices and sophisticated exercise techniques that enable space travelers to control their heart rate, breathing, gastrointestinal functions, and other automatic body responses.
Saturday, NASA scientists and doctors from the University of Tennessee, Memphis, combined forces to see if the space agency's breakthroughs can help the earthbound ill as well.
If the collaboration is successful, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will be able to earn much-needed money from the private sector to supplement its tightly controlled government budget.
More important, perhaps, is that UT and other clinics and hospitals could be able to provide relief for patients suffering from debilitating diseases that result in almost permanent states of nausea, dizziness and other mainly gastrointestinal disorders.
''Say you've been on an overnight drinking binge, and the next day you're sick, vomiting, you can't eat, you're dizzy,'' said William Alford, 48, of Tuscaloosa, Ala. ''Imagine feeling that way every day of your life.''
That's what life is like for Leah Alford, Alford's wife, who for the past several years has suffered from a very rare disease of uncertain origin called Chronic Intestinal Pseudo-Obstruction Syndrome.
Mrs. Alford, a patient at the UT-operated William F. Bowld Hospital, Saturday became the first person to take part in the UT-NASA test program.
Mrs. Alford was fitted in a garment that included a variety of wires that monitored her heart rate, blood pressure, and other body functions. The results were recorded by a miniaturized beltlike device she wore around her waist. The garment and equipment were developed by NASA for use in space, where everything needs to be small and portable. This small monitoring system eventually could replace the large-scale systems currently in use almost everywhere else, NASA officials believe.
The tests will give NASA scientists and UT doctors a sort of blueprint of Mrs. Alford's condition. The results will help them determine what sort of responses to expect when Mrs. Alford travels to NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., for about three weeks of conditioning, using the body-control techniques developed for astronauts. It is hoped that Mrs. Alford will be able to alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of the disease by learning to control her heart rate, breathing and other autonomic body responses.
The Alfords are praying something will work. The disease, ''a sort of polio of the intestines, has taken complete control of our life,'' said Alford, an electrical engineer.
''She can no longer take food by mouth, so she's tethered to a pump into her small intestine for hours a day,'' Alford said of his wife. ''I've become unemployed and basically a home caregiver. We have no social life left, and a very low standard of living.''
Mrs. Alford, who was an artist, often becomes dizzy if she stands up; she cannot concentrate long enough to read; she cannot follow the plots of movies.
Dr. Thomas L. Abell, 47, of the UT Medical Group, who is Mrs. Alford's doctor in Memphis, said about 200 to 300 new patients a year come to the UT clinic with similarly debilitating conditions.
''All we've got to do is say we've got something new, and these people will drive all night to get here,'' he said. ''They are miserable and desperate.''
It was Alford, in fact, who brought UT and NASA together. He spends much of his time researching his wife's disease, and he learned of the NASA work during his reading.
The tests Saturday were overseen by the husband-and-wife creators of the NASA techniques and technology: Dr. Patricia Cowings, who works at the Ames Center, and Dr. Bill Toscano, of the University of California at Los Angeles.
Cowings, who has worked for NASA for 25 years, has achieved a certain level of fame for her work with astronautic nausea. She was dubbed ''The Baroness of Barf'' by Time magazine, and even has been immortalized on a baseball-style trading card in the ''Bill Nye, the Science Guy'' series from Skybox. She is one of five people dubbed ''Way Cool Scientist'' in the series.
Cowings developed the training that Mrs. Alford will undergo, which she calls Autogenic Feedback Training. AFT exercises allow astronauts to learn to voluntarily control their automatic body functions - heart rate, intestinal functions, even the muscles of their blood vessels - to prevent nausea, dizziness, and other problems of weightlessness.
She said this is similar to what yogis supposedly do, but ''there's nothing mystical about it at all. It's a learned skill. People learn to control specific muscles.
''You do it all the time without realizing it. If you're psyching yourself up for a tennis match, you're upping your heart rate, you're changing your breathing. . . . When you come home after a hard day of work and plop down on the couch, you've totally changed your body responses.''
NASA has patented this procedure, and the hardware that goes with it. Cowings said the research and development cost about $3 million. If the procedure proves to work on Mrs. Alford and other patients (as opposed to in-the-pink astronauts), NASA will be able to sell the hardware and expertise to hospitals and clinics.
''I think it's a collaboration with mutual benefits,'' said Dr. Sergio Cardosa, 68, director of UT's Autonomic Function Laboratory, where Saturday's tests took place.
''This is a wonderful opportunity to associate with a branch of government that has spent years developing something that could be beneficial in a clinical situation,'' Cardosa said.