July 1, 2003
A Space-Age Idea
NASA’s first African American female astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison, has turned her career at the space agency into a business opportunity. In 1999, Jemison started BioSentient Corp. in Houston to obtain the license to commercialize Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE), a technology originally developed for NASA by Patricia Cowings, an African American scientist at its Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The technology, which was initially designed to help with space adaptation syndrome (similar to motion sickness), is being examined as a possible treatment for anxiety, nausea, and other stress-related disorders. It works by monitoring the body’s feedback and controlling the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, sweating, and breathing. “When you get motion sickness, for example, there is a disconnect, so your autonomic nervous system doesn’t function properly,” Jemison says. “So we use AFTE to reinvent balance in the autonomic nervous system so things function on an even keel. It’s an exercise that requires training just like with strengthening the abdominal muscles.”
To teach individuals how to control their physiology, AFTE requires a six- to 12-hour training session using feedback from a thin, camisole-like undergarment. “What were previously considered involuntary, or autonomic, responses are in fact voluntary if you are taught properly,” says Cowings.
At this point, Jemison would only say that her company has “made a significant investment” in developing AFTE. She notes, however, that alternative medicine is more than a $25 billion market. “When you look at the [number of people who] have anxiety disorders, it affects more than 19 million people,” she says. “People pay more money out of pocket for therapies than they do for insurance co-pays, so people are willing to pay. I believe we’re at the beginning of a re-emergence of how we can interact with our bodies without drugs.”
For individuals suffering from anger management, for example, the equipment could signal change such as sweating or an increase in heart rate. “By recognizing these [systemic changes], AFTE helps people understand what’s going on, so they can recognize at what point they start to lose control,” Jemison explains.
AFTE is still in the prototype stage, with a final product slated for the fall. The product has gone through several stages of testing to “ensure it’s ergonomically effective and up-to-date. We’re taking a 1980s technology and bringing it up to 2004. Also, we had to figure out how to use the equipment on a commercial basis since it was originally designed for space adaptation syndrome,” Jemison explains.
BioSentient will market the equipment to healthcare professionals such as psychiatrists, neurologists, and physiologists who will then train assistants to teach patients how to control their physiology without pharmaceutical help.
Jemison says there are several benefits to this technology: improved performance in times of high stress, wireless communication that allows for convenient monitoring, and real-time feedback. Stay tuned — this product is coming to a healthcare specialist near you.