Plain Sailing: New Treatment Could Consign Seasickness to the Depths in Five Years

U.S. Navy sailors man the rails aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington while underway off the coast of Singapore, August 2, 2009. A new treatment claims to be able to treat seasickness without debilitating side effects. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam K. Thomas/Released

Seasickness has dogged sailors and seafarers on the high seas for centuries. Now, a new treatment may be about to consign the troublesome ailment to the deep—and you could access it through your smartphone.

In a study published in the medical journal Neurology on Friday, scientists from Imperial College London detailed how they had developed a form of electro-cortical therapywhereby tiny electrical currents are passed through the brain which they say provides an effective treatment for motion sickness experienced in planes, trains and automobiles, as well as boats.

Qadeer Arshad, the study's lead author and a specialist in balance disorders in the Department of Medicine at Imperial, hopes anti-seasickness devices will be on sale in stores within five to 10 years time. He also suggests that the treatment could be integrated into smartphones, which could deliver the small electrical impulses through a wire plugged into the headphone jack.

Arshad says that motion sickness is very common, with severe symptoms such as cold sweats and intense nausea affecting around three in 10 people. "Motion sickness has the potential to affect everyone of us," says Arshad. "If the sea is rough, eventually everybody will get sick because it's a natural response to get rid of toxins and poisons from the body."

Scientists have long been puzzled by what causes motion sickness, despite the fact it is a very common ailment. It is believed that motion sickness may occur when there is a disconnect between your eyes and a person's vestibular systemthe sensory system which coordinates balance and includes the ear canals. For example, when you are traveling in a car, your eyes may be telling your brain that you are moving at 30 miles per hour, while your vestibular system is telling it that you are sitting still. These confusing inputs are thought to cause the symptoms associated with motion sickness.

The study involved stimulating the left parietal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing motion signals, with electrical currents transmitted by electrodes placed on the scalp. The treatment has the effect of numbing this section of the brain and reducing the impact of the confusing inputs received when people are experiencing motion sickness.

Motion sickness
A volunteer is pictured in the motion sickness simulator with an electrical current applied to his scalp. Imperial College London

Beyond traditional remedies like looking out the window or going on deck for a breath of fresh air, current medical treatments for motion sickness include hyoscine or scopolamine, a medication which has side-effects including drowsiness and blurred vision.

Arshad says the new treatment is targeted at naval military and boat captains, who can't afford to suffer such side effects. "We need advances because current therapies are only partially effective," Arshad says. "The best standard is...scopolamine, which is only partially effective and has very strong side effects [and] puts you to sleep. That's no good if you're working on a ship."

Arshad notes that the study produced no notable side effects in subjects, while also reducing symptoms and speeding up recovery times from motion sickness.