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Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 00:19 GMT
Astronauts trained in ultrasound
The training guide teaches the basics such as probe positioning
Nasa astronauts are being taught how to carry out medical scans to assess their health while in space.

Astronauts on board the International Space Station have learned how to operate ultrasound as if they were technicians themselves.

If faced with a medical emergency, the space voyagers should be able to spot what is wrong with a scan and beam the information back to mission control.

A medical expert back on earth can use this data to guide treatment remotely.

Deep space imaging

Dr Scott Dulchavsky, a surgeon at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and investigator for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, who developed the training programme, said: "We virtually couple a modestly trained operator with an experienced medical expert, essentially making the non-physician the hands of the expert."

In space, ultrasound can be used to assess a number of injuries, such as trauma to the eye, shoulder or knee, tooth abscesses, broken bones, a collapsed lung or haemorrhaging.

Dr Dulchavsky said: "We have just completed investigations with astronauts. We looked a lot at their bones and muscles because they lose a lot of mass and bone strength during their long stay up in space.

Image of
Images of surgical procedures may be viewed remotely

"That would be important if they were going up to Mars for a two-year mission.

"We also looked at their intra-abdominal organs because they move around in zero gravity. It can make diagnosis of things like appendicitis a little bit different from here on Earth."

Minor injuries could be managed on the spacecraft, with advice from mission control, while more major problems might require the crew to abort the mission and head home.

However, in the future, Dr Dulchavsky said they hoped to be able to develop operating instruments that would allow the crew to carry out simple procedures to see the injured "through the eye of the storm" until they were able to return to Earth for more extensive medical help.

It normally takes 200 hours and yearly updates to learn how to operate ultrasound.

The computer-based training method developed by Dr Dulchavsky and his team cuts the time down to two-to-three hours a year.

Back on Earth

The training guide teaches the user the "nuts and bolts" of ultrasound, such as where to position the probe to see different organs within the body and what the correct ultrasound image should look like on the monitor.

The technology is also being used to help people back on Earth.

Trainers with the Detroit Red Wings hockey team have been learning ultrasound skills so they can diagnose injuries in their athletes in the stadium.

"The ultrasound device - which is about the size of a laptop - in the locker room is hooked up to the hospital.

"They will send the images to us and we can say 'you are out of the game' or 'take some aspirin and get back in there and fight for the team'."

Dr Dulchavsky believes it could also help battlefield medics and emergency responders to assess and make decisions about whether to treat trauma on the spot or transport the injured to a hospital.

It could also help people who live in remote communities. "That's my ultimate goal, to expand capabilities in under-served areas," he said.

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