Space – the final frontier for an Israeli-designed heart monitor

Space – the final frontier for an Israeli-designed heart monitor

A cardiovascular ultrasound system helps NASA to determine the best way to keep astronauts on the International Space Station healthy

A NASA astronaut is hooked up to a Vivid-q system in a space station simulator (photo credit: Courtesy NASA)
A NASA astronaut is hooked up to a Vivid-q system in a space station simulator (photo credit: Courtesy NASA)

Israeli medical technology is having a huge impact on the world, and now it’s making its mark in space. In a statement, GE Healthcare said this week that its Vivid-q Cardiovascular Ultrasound system is in use on the International Space Station. The system, which was developed by GE Healthcare’s R&D lab in Israel, is monitoring astronauts on the Space Station to determine the long-term impact of “captivity” in space on the human body.

Vivid-q, about the size of a laptop, uses ultrasound to measure heart and other functions in the body and is able to produce high-quality 2D and panoramic images, with features NASA has not had access to before in space imaging systems, GE Healthcare said.

Scientists have noticed that astronauts who spend time in space suffer from lightheadedness and drops in blood pressure. The phenomenon is attributed at least in part to the effects of microgravity on astronauts when they are up in space.

NASA is using the system in several studies, the company said. One, called the Integrated Cardiovascular study, is examining the effect of space travel on the heart. One of the consequences of long-term residence in space, scientists say, is a condition called cardiac atrophy, in which the heart gets weaker, and can even get smaller. The study, which has been ongoing for several years, is trying to determine just how badly long-duration space flight impacts the heart.

Another study in which the Vivid-q is being used is one involving the damage to muscle and bones. It’s not just the heart that is affected by long periods in space; other muscles, as well as bones, can weaken and shrink — by as much as 2 percent a month, according to NASA scientists. One way to avoid this is via high-intensity, low impact exercises, such as a space-age “weight machine” designed specifically for the Space Station. The Vivid-q is being used by NASA to determine the ideal length and type of exercise, measuring the effect of the exercises on heart and muscle size and condition. And a third study is measuring the effects of space travel on blood vessels, which, too, tend to weaken as the walls of the vessels get thinner.

The studies “will also help us determine if there is a risk of abnormal heart rhythms and how significant the risk is in order to develop appropriate countermeasures,” said Dr. Deborah Harm, a top NASA scientist who has worked on medical issues for astronauts on the Space Station. “At this time it is unknown if heart muscle weakening continues throughout a mission or if it levels off at some point. That’s what we want to find out.”

Ilan Lifshitz, general manager of ultrasound for GE Healthcare in Israel, said regarding the revelation that Vivid-q, developed in his department, is doing the analysis work, that “it is an honor for GE to have our technology recognized and to be involved with this cutting-edge research being conducted by NASA’s human research program.”

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