Study uses NASA technology for heart health tests

A new study underway at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center could give physicians a way to get a better understanding of patients’ cardiac health using technology developed by NASA, according to a statement by the university.

One of the study’s main researchers pointed out the American Heart Association recommends that patients undergoing cardiac stress tests should exercise, as a way to increase their heart rate and give a fuller picture of their overall and cardiac health to doctors. But some patients whose hearts are at risk are also unable to exercise with the intensity needed to raise their heart rates high enough for a stress test—maybe because of bone weakness, joint pain or causes for low mobility.

To combat that exercise burden on patients and still allow them to get the readings they need for an accurate test, physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center are using zero-gravity treadmills in stress tests. The treadmills can reduce the patients’ weight by 25 to 50 percent, according to researcher Myron Gerson, MD, making it much more comfortable for them to walk for the amount of time necessary to reach a stress test-level heart rate.

Then doctors can use normal imaging techniques to take pictures of the heart and its blood supply, completing the stress test. This exercise version of the test is considered more comprehensive and accurate than the pharmacological version, in which a patient takes regadenoson so physicians can see what is going on with his heart. Ability to exercise is considered a telling longevity factor, so actually getting to see a patient exercise could mean for a more accurate of his or her overall health than just a dose of regadenoson.

The treadmill is similar to the one NASA uses aboard the International Space Station to allow astronauts to exercise. It’s made by the California company AlterG. The user gets sealed into a pressurized container from the waist down, which allows for the zero-gravity feeling.

One study participant, 68-year-old Marilyn Cotter, said the treadmill made a usually painful six-minute walk into an experience in which “nothing hurt” and she felt weightless, according to the university’s statement.

Joining Cotter are 49 other study participants. Gerson said the main goals of the study are to verify the treadmill’s safety and confirm that the image quality using the treadmill’s stress tests will be good enough to use.