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Ultrasound Will Examine Astronauts’ Spines

January 3, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Continuing this week’s outer-space theme: NASA plans to use ultrasound, starting this month, to attempt to determine why astronauts living aboard the International Space Station grow taller.

After several months in the microgravity of Earth’s orbit, astronauts can grow up to 3 percent taller. Their height returns to normal when they get back to the ground.

Presumably, astronauts grow taller for the same reason that earthbound people become up to a centimeter taller in their beds overnight: Standing upright in gravity compresses the spinal discs. Removing the compressive pull of gravity, by either reclining or rocketing up into orbit, allows the spinal discs to expand.

We suspect that NASA’s actually interested in the anatomical details of how that expansion takes place. Scott A. Dulchavsky, MD, PhD, the principal investigator for the study, suggested as much when he said, “This is the very first time that spinal ultrasound will be used to evaluate the changes in the spine.”

Dr. Dulchavsky is chair of surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He was quoted in a NASA news release.

The Space Station has had ultrasound capability for some time, although it has never been used for something as sophisticated as the spinal study. A little more than a year ago, the station received a new ultrasound unit, Ultrasound 2, a modified GE Healthcare Vivid q machine. Said Dr. Dulchavsky:

Today there is a new ultrasound device on the station that allows more precise musculoskeletal imaging required for assessment of the complex anatomy and the spine.

The crew is receiving training in spinal ultrasound, Dr. Dulchavsky said. Six crew members will be test subjects. Scans will take place at 30, 90, and 150 days into flight. The test subjects will undergo pre- and post-flight ultrasound and MRI scans on Earth to provide baseline data.

“Ultrasound also allows us to evaluate physiology in motion, such as the movement of muscles, blood in vessels, and function in other systems in the body,” Dr. Dulchavsky said. Researchers on the ground will watch the scans in real time via streaming video.

NASA hopes the research will help in the development of crew exercises and rehabilitation techniques.┬áDr. Dulchavsky thinks techniques pioneered on the space station could also be used in areas on Earth where other advanced imaging devices are not available. “The vast majority of the global population has no access to an MRI,” he said. “The in-flight tools such as the interactive spinal ultrasound guide can also be used to train other complex procedures.”

Related seminar: Imaging Advances: Abdominal, Thoracic, Skeletal

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