Human perception of whole body roll-tilt orientation in a hypogravity analog: underestimation and adaptation.
Overestimation of roll tilt in hypergravity ("G-excess" illusion) has been demonstrated, but corresponding sustained hypogravic conditions are impossible to create in ground laboratories. In this article we describe the first systematic experimental evidence that in a hypogravity analog, humans underestimate roll tilt. We studied perception of self-roll tilt in nine subjects, who were supine while spun on a centrifuge to create a hypogravity analog. By varying the centrifuge rotation rate, we modulated the centripetal acceleration (GC) at the subject's head location (0.5 or 1 GC) along the body axis. We measured orientation perception using a subjective visual vertical task in which subjects aligned an illuminated bar with their perceived centripetal acceleration direction during tilts (±11.5-28.5°). As hypothesized, based on the reduced utricular otolith shearing, subjects initially underestimated roll tilts in the 0.5 GC condition compared with the 1 GC condition (mean perceptual gain change = -0.27, P = 0.01). When visual feedback was given after each trial in 0.5 GC, subjects' perceptual gain increased in approximately exponential fashion over time (time constant = 16 tilts or 13 min), and after 45 min, the perceptual gain was not significantly different from the 1 GC baseline (mean gain difference between 1 GC initial and 0.5 GC final = 0.16, P = 0.3). Thus humans modified their interpretation of sensory cues to more correctly report orientation during this hypogravity analog. Quantifying the acute orientation perceptual learning in such an altered gravity environment may have implications for human space exploration on the moon or Mars. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Humans systematically overestimate roll tilt in hypergravity. However, human perception of orientation in hypogravity has not been quantified across a range of tilt angles. Using a centrifuge to create a hypogravity centripetal acceleration environment, we found initial underestimation of roll tilt. Providing static visual feedback, perceptual learning reduced underestimation during the hypogravity analog. These altered gravity orientation perceptual errors and adaptation may have implications for astronauts.