John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter
A new product designed to fight motion sickness promises to put the “NASA” back in “nasal spray.”
The space agency announced October 12 that it had signed an agreement with a pharmaceutical company to develop, test and bring to market a nasal gel designed to ward off queasiness from spaceflight, as well as from more mundane travel.
The active ingredient, scopolamine, is about as effective as antihistamines (such as dimenhydrinate, used in Dramamine) in preventing motion sickness, but carries less risk of common side effects such as drowsiness, according to a recent Cochrane Review. Scopolamine is already available by prescription in patch form.
But the patch delivers the drug in a slow-release, long-lasting stream—it takes hours to kick in. The nasal spray works much more quickly than either the patch or a tablet form of the drug. Levels of scopolamine in the body peak about 22 minutes after nasal administration—twice as fast as the pill—according to a 1996 NASA study on the drug’s bioavailability.
In concert with NASA, the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Pensacola, Fla., recently tested the efficacy of the nasal gel with the aid of something called the Human Disorientation Device (HDD). Sixteen volunteers took either nasal scopolamine or a placebo and then entered the HDD, which is a chair mounted inside a metal sphere, with “an aviator-style four-point seat belt and a padded head fixture” to keep the experimental subject strapped down, according to a technical report on the research. Once buckled into the HDD, the subject began to rotate in two directions at once—spinning counterclockwise around the vertical axis at a gradually increasing rate, and rolling steadily from side to side. That continued until the subject reported moderate nausea or until 40 minutes elapsed, at which point the HDD had been cranked up to 40 rpm.
The test was rather small in scope, but the subjects survived the HDD about 20 percent longer with the help of nasal scopolamine than with the placebo. According to the NASA release, the space agency will now collaborate with Epiomed Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company based in Irvine, Calif., to conduct clinical trials. If the drug wins FDA approval, Epiomed will then provide the spray to NASA for use in space and to nausea-prone frequent fliers, cruise-ship customers and carsick passengers for use back on Earth.