Saint Michael’s faculty working with NASA on stress reduction in space

Local News

Two Saint Michael’s college professors who believe astronauts might be able to combat stress in space have spent the past year testing “virtual reality meditation” on students and emergency responders. 

Research shows astronauts face many stressors in space, such as being away from home and adjusting to a new environment. 

“And they are also exposed to radiation, microgravity, adjusting to life in a closed hostile environment,” Melissa VanderKaay Tomasulo, Saint Michael’s psychology and neuroscience professor said. “You know if you need a breath of fresh air you don’t just roll down the window.”

VanderKaay Tomasulo and Dagan Loisel of the biology department believe there is a way to help them.

They received $50,000 in grants from NASA, to collect data from students to see if virtual reality experiences can reduce stress levels, because mental health can lead to physical illnesses.

“In times of stress what researchers have found is that your immune system can become dysregulated,” VanderKaay Tomasulo said. “You might then shed that virus and be contagious to others that are uninfected and that is a huge concern for NASA scientists because you are in a closed environment.”

VanderKaay Tomasulo recommends using a stress relieving app within the headset, at least four times a week. 

“You can choose if you would like to feel calm, or if your goal is to focus,” Dr. VanderKaay Tomasulo said. “And from there you engage in an eight, ten, twenty minute exercise that will really be immersive and it’s this very psychedelic world.”

The two professors adapted their research to 20 students, who work at St. Michael’s Fire and Rescue, since many of them stayed on campus and worked during the pandemic.

“Their sleep cycle can be disrupted if they have an emergency call, [and] they are also students experiencing academic stress,” VanderKaay Tomasulo said.

Diana Whitman is a rescue captain and advanced EMT. She participated in the study because she wanted to see how stress was affecting her. 

“It definitely helped me because I know for myself my brain is always going,” Whitman said. “I am always thinking 24/7 what can I do next, what do I have to do that kind of thing. So it was really nice to put it on and block out the world.” 

The professors will get another $50,000 through the Vermont Space Grant Consortium. They are still in the early stages of the study and are waiting for results. 

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