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Researchers said that a simple electronic device or phone app could be available within five to ten years

A mobile phone app that applies a small electric current to the scalp through a headset could soon be used to alleviate sea sickness and other kinds of motion nausea, scientists believe.

A study has shown that an electric current applied to the left side of the head can be as good as the best sea-sickness pills but without causing the drowsiness that prevents people from driving or operating machinery.

Researchers said that a simple electronic device or phone app could be available within five to ten years to combat the dizziness, severe nausea and cold sweats associated with motion sickness - a major problem for ferry passengers and workers.

The scientists believe that the mild electric current, which is equivalent to that of a 9V battery and feels like a tingle, interferes with the part of the brain that processes motion signals. Although the biological cause of sea sickness is not clear, it is probably due to conflicting sensory input from the eyes and the balance organ of the inner ear.

“It suppresses the brain area that is responsible for the processing of the signals from the balance organ of the inner ear,” said Qadeer Arshad of Imperial College London, who led the research.

“We are confident that within five to ten years people will be able to walk into the chemist and buy and anti-sickness device.It may be something like a ‘tens’ machine that is used for back pain. We hope it might even integrate with a mobile phone, which would be abel to deliver the small amount of electricity via the headjack,” Dr Arshad said.

“In either case, you would temporarily attach small electrodes to your scalp before traveling, on a cross-channel ferry for example....The currents involved are small and there is no reason to expect any adverse effects from short-term use,” he said.

Almost everyone can suffer from motion sickness and about one in three people experience severe symptoms. Long bus trips, ferry journeys and flights in light aircraft are some of the activities that can bring it on, and all current therapies are only partially effective, the researchers say in their study published in the journal Neurology.

Ten volunteers wore the electrical device for 10 minutes while they were asked to sit in a rotating chair that also tilts to simulate the effects of traveling in a rocking boat or a rollercoaster. The scientists found that the human guinea-pigs were less likely to feel nauseous and were able to recover more quickly after wearing an electric-stimulation device.

“The problem with treatments for motion sickness is that the effective ones are usually tablets that also make people drowsy,” said Professor Michael Gresty of Imperial College, who is an authority on motion sickness.

“That’s all very well if you are on a short journey or a passenger, but what about if you work on a cruise ship and need to deal with motion sickness whilst continuing to work,” Professor Gresty said.

“The benefits we saw are very close to the effects we see with the best travel sickness medications available,” he said.

Dr Arshad said there are other possible applications for the device, and the military are interested in developing it for personnel who get sea sick when operating remotely-controlled drones.

“From other studies we also have evidence that stimulating the brain in this way can enhance attention and concentration. This aspect is of great interest to the military and we may imagine that other groups such as students and people who spend long periods playing computer games will also want to try it out,” he said