Self-referred imagingin outer space

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Researchers with the NASA-funded National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) in Houston have developed a guide aimed at enabling astronauts to administer and interpret their own ultrasound exams from space, with the group’s experimental research reverberating to rural practices back on the ground as well.

With the help of an NSBRI grant, physicians and scientists from several U.S. hospitals have collaborated on research to further the accuracy and accessibility of portable ultrasound. The team has produced guides to ultrasound use and interpretation and helped to expand ultrasound training to additional medical specialties.

In the most recent breakthrough, researchers on the ground helped guide astronauts from five expeditions to conduct more than 80 hours of ultrasound exams on the International Space Station. The result of these 20,000 images has been the creation of a “space-normal atlas,” which can serve as a reference for astronauts to conduct and interpret their own ultrasound exams from space.

“The ultrasound intuitive guide allows astronauts to conduct exams when quick communication with an expert is not available due to distance from Earth or other reasons,” stated Scott A. Dulchavsky, chairman of surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and the principal investigator for a group of NSBRI projects.

Previously, astronauts had used ultrasound under the guidance of specialists back on Earth, who then read the images remotely. The researchers’ projects have both enhanced this teleradiology process and enabled self-review of images for certain exams.

“We demonstrated on the International Space Station that even non-physicians can produce diagnostic-quality ultrasound images using remote guidance,” explained Leroy Chiao, PhD, from NSBRI and Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine in Houston. Chiao was one of the first astronauts to conduct ultrasound in space.

“These ultrasound exam techniques and atlas will be increasingly important as we venture farther and longer into space. Telemedicine using ultrasound will be an invaluable medical diagnostic tool,” Chiao continued.

Houston-based NSBRI, which is a consortium of more than 60 institutions studying medical care in space, noted that the capacity of astronauts to interpret their own exams will vary significantly depending on indication. For instance, potential bone fractures present more straightforward diagnoses than subtle changes in zero-gravity heart function, the group said.

The World Interactive Network Focused on Critical UltraSound, with whom NSBRI has collaborated on the space projects, likewise emphasized the broader implications of their research. The portability and low cost of the technology has facilitated rural access to imaging not only in space but also in Mozambique, Lesotho, India and Brazil, with further projects in progress, NSBRI stated.