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Who Wants To Be Rocked To Sleep? ODU Researcher Plans to Use Motorized Rocking Chair to Study Motion-Induced Drowsiness

When he starts seeking subjects for his study of Sopite Syndrome - or motion-induced drowsiness -- there's a pretty good chance Christopher Brill won't have a difficult time.

In order to be 'tested,' the subjects will sit in a motorized La-Z-Boy, and see how much the rocking of the device makes them feel drowsy. Sounds like good work if you can get it.

It's an innovative study being planned by Brill, assistant professor of psychology in Old Dominion University's College of Sciences, an expert in the field of human factors. Brill has received a $36,000 grant under the Virginia Space Grant Consortium's New Investigator Program.

"The thrust of this grant is to understand Sopite Syndrome more. You have this intense drowsiness, despite getting an adequate night's sleep. It's not boredom, it's very distinct from it. It's directly from exposure to motion," Brill said.

"But it's a normal, natural response. Everybody experiences this, but we actually know very little about it. So that's what this grant is about."

The Space Grant Consortium's interest in the subject stems from the fact that Sopite Syndrome is a problem for astronauts. Missions cost a lot of money, time is precious, and astronauts get lethargic and fuzzy-headed from the motion.

In order to facilitate the study, Brill formed a unique partnership with students in the senior design project overseen by Sebastian Bawab, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

Brill said in order to simulate the motion required for the study, he needed to be able to control the speed, tilt and direction of the movement with a single device. Such a device would have cost more than $100,000 to purchase.

"I learned a long time ago to look for creative, low-cost solutions to research problems. And in this case, I thought, 'What is the ideal type of Sopite stimulus?'" Brill said. "I got the idea to build a motorized rocking chair, essentially. Because that would provide real motion, and it's mild, and it's controllable."

Now called a linear oscillating acceleration device, the chair was designed and built by Batten College students working under Bawab.

At his previous institution, Michigan Tech, Brill had partnered with some computer science students and ended up getting software written at a low cost. Asking around the ODU campus, Brill was linked up with Bawab, and told him what he hoped to accomplish.

"He liked the idea. He said this sounds like a great senior design project. He told me 'Why don't you put together a paragraph describing your project, and we'll see if we get any bites?' And we got some bites pretty much instantaneously," Brill said.

The three students, Brandon Zoss, Eric Burns and Thomas Dungan, started meeting in December, and completed their project by the end of the semester, save for a few last-minute tweaks which they're still overseeing.

"I was very impressed. They've worked very hard. They're very hard on themselves, and they expect a lot of themselves," Brill said.

"What they liked about the project was it was something, first of all, that was going to be used. It was for a specific purpose. They also liked that it was a bite-sized piece of the project. It was something they could see through from beginning to end."

Brill added: "For my part, I enjoyed exposing engineering students to human factors," a subdiscipline of psychology dedicated to designing technology with consideration for human abilities and limitations. "I frequently asked them to consider aspects of the chair's design from the user's perspective so that it could be operated safely and accurately."

Test subjects should be seated in the chair by the fall.

"I have no shortage of people who want to sign up and take a ride. Maybe I should charge admission. It can supplement my research funding," Brill laughed.

The researcher said once more is known about Sopite Syndrome, counter-measures could be developed. "That can help prevent people from falling asleep while driving. It can help astronauts think more clearly while they're on missions. Then you can improve safety and efficiency," he said.

As more is known about the field, Brill has all sorts of studies he wants to tackle.

"I have so many ideas in this area of research, and it's only a matter of getting the funding to do it. The study we're doing in the fall semester, I plan to use as pilot data to apply for future funding with other agencies."

As for the expected life-span of the chair, Brill says he instructed the students to build it to last 10 years and beyond. He said, "It's not a true replacement for the $100K-plus piece of equipment I'll ultimately need for my research. However, the chair offers its own unique capabilities and will remain useful for many years to come."

This article was posted on: June 18, 2010

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