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Monday, 17 February 2014

Life Sciences Laboratory at the ISU

A few months ago, during one of the excellent workshops at the ISU, the students had a chance to learn more about the equipment in the Life Sciences lab. Playing around with equipment to measure heart rate, eye movement, and muscle strain, we learned a lot about the human body and measurement methods used both on the ground and in space!

All photo and video credit to Adrian Eilingsfeld.

Professor Gilles Clément led the workshop and did so with his usual expertise and good humour. His lectures, all on human performance in space, all feature interesting aspects of health in space and often include musical accompaniment. Professor Clément co-wrote a few books which I have mentioned before, namely Artificial Gravity and Fundamentals of Space Medicine, which I have read, enjoyed, and thoroughly recommend. As such, much of this workshop I had read about but was now having the chance to experience!

The first piece of equipment we examined was a tape recorder used by astronauts in space! Space and the microgravity environment cause the human body to change and adapt and astronauts are often asked to perform simple experiments wherein they may measure these changes. During many experiments, astronauts used the tape recorder to mark important segments or changes. For example, some of the experiments included a visual component and since the astronaut would be busy watching the display, they would use the recorder to make observations as they worked. I thought the contraption looked entirely too delicate and intricate to be used in space, especially considering the tape had to be wound in by hand!

Next up was an experiment to test the movement of the eyes during spin. We weren't able to get good pictures or video of this experiment, but I remember it well. The students would sit in a chair in front of this equipment, marked "Pupil tracking system", put on some goggles, and the chair would spin slowly. As this happened, a camera captured the movement of their eyes and displayed it on a screen for the rest of us to see! During the spin, everyone's eyes would move left and right rapidly.

The next experiment was to measure muscle strain. For this experiment, sensors were attached to the right arm and as one flexed, we could see the electrical work performed by the muscles on the screen. With many laughs, we cheered, teased, and taunted each other to make the readings move on the screen. As you may recall from an earlier post, the microgravity environment in space means that humans do not have to try as hard to move around. Because of this, astronauts lose muscle mass and this experiment is a simple one to gauge the loss of strength over time.

Next, we measured eye movement, again! This time, the sensors were attached to the temple and above/below the eye. (Don't worry, the sensors merely adhered to the skin and were easily removed) One of the reactions they wanted to measure was the vestibulo-ocular reflex!

When you are looking at something, and you turn your head, your eyes stay fixed, right? Well, this reflex is the name of your ability to move your eyes in the opposite motion of your head's movement, in order to stay focused. Go head, try it now! Look at something and turn your head. No matter the movement of your head, left, right, up, down, you should be able to keep your eyes fixed. Now, these sensors, which basically measure electrical potential, voltage, can detect when your eyes are not centre.

As explained by Professor Clément below, and demonstrated by our own Patricia "Trisha" Randazzo and Prateep Basu, you can simply test the eye movement, but you can also wear the goggles and test your eye movement in response to head movement. The sound is a little tinny but it's all in the sake of science!

Prateep, Jose, and Trisha, looking happy in the name of science!
An excellent photo of us hard at work.
After that, we went back to equipment with which many of us were more familiar. We listened to each other's heartbeats with stethoscopes, and learned how to check our blood pressure using the arm cuff. It turns out this experience is very subjective, as explained by medical doctor, and fellow student, Robert Terlevic.

When the cuff is in place, you begin by pumping and inflating the cuff. As you do this, you listen to the blood pressure using the attached stethoscope. Once this sounds stops, you stop pumping and gently deflate. At a certain point, you will hear the blood pumping and you keep deflating until you are not able to hear anything anymore. As should be obvious, you have not stopped the blood from pumping in this process but are merely changing your ability to record the data. Blood pressure is then measured in units of the first pressure you hear over the last pressure you hear, for example nominal blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg (that's millimeters of Mercury as things used to be measured this way).

The last part of the workshop was the most fun and the one most prone to awkwardness, if I was bothered by such a thing. Moving to the other side of the lab, we were told about the ultrasound. Most of us understood the theory behind the ultrasound and may have seen one before, but now we were getting a chance to actually use it! Rushing forward, I quickly volunteered to be the one on the table.

Taking off my shirt, I laid on the table and had a breathing mask placed over my face. Lying there, I thought to myself how awkward this may have been to me in the past, but I was excited to see my organs, at which point I was reminded that I have not gotten any less strange, but now am enthusiastic about it. They placed the cuff back on my arm and a sensor on my finger to measure heart rate and blood pressure and then they got the gel!

Before we get to that, here are some photos. One good, and one wherein I play dead for the camera.
Here I am, in none of my glory.

So, in order for the ultrasound to work, they apply a gel to the area and place the ultrasound sensor on that. Robert Terlevic conducted most of the measurements, commenting on what we saw. We were able to see my kidney, my heart, and some of my veins!

I tried several times to upload the video here, but it would not work. However, you may watch it by following the public Dropbox link here!

It was a funny experience and it was a good thing that Robert was used to this and used to me. Not willing to just be a spectator, I did my best to get the best data! I sucked in my chest, grabbed Robert's arm and pressed the sensor down as hard as possible! That's why they mention halfway through the video that my skin was red, because I was pressing down with everything I had since the better the connection, the better the image. Robert was actually pulling away somewhat, but I wanted to do science! Grossly, looking around moved the gel everywhere, but it was easy to clean off, and really, I had a lot of fun!

And that concluded the workshop! I had a really good time and I hope you did too! Some of the students at the ISU are working on Independent Projects involving the Life Sciences lab and so I'm sure we'll be back in the spinning chair in no time!

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