Healthy bones in the heavens

Researchers from Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering and Dartmouth Medical School, both in the US, have designed computer software that may help astronauts monitor bone loss during space flights.

Researchers from Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering and Dartmouth Medical School have teamed up to design computer software, called mobile agents, to help astronauts monitor bone loss during long space flights.

Mobile agents, migratory computer programs, are utilised in this project because of their ability to jump from host to host in a computer network as needed.

Their system will, in part, measure urinary calcium, monitor atmospheric conditions inside the spacecraft, keep track of each astronaut’s diet and exercise, and continually analyse all the data to provide feedback.

‘The inherent nature of mobile agents, moving among the different equipment in an integrated, methodical way, makes the data capture process less of a burden for the astronauts,’ said Sue McGrath, a Senior Research Engineer.

Mobile agents are a developing field in computer science and computer networks with mobile agent architectures are already being developed to monitor information sources on the Internet, detect airborne threats for military intelligence systems, and provide timely tactical information and analysis to soldiers in the field through wireless networks.

The current method for monitoring bone loss in astronauts involves measuring the loss after the flight, correlating it to activity during the flight and adjusting the exercise and nutrition programs for subsequent voyages.

Treatment to correct the bone loss begins after the astronaut has a mission but this approach would not be wise for an extended space journey.

The new proposed system monitors bone loss as it occurs so the crewmember can take immediate action.

The challenge is said to lie in creating the elaborate system of data collection, management and interpretation.

The mobile agents that George Cybenko, the Dorothy and Walter Gramm Professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, McGrath and Jay C. Buckey, a Research Associate Professor at Dartmouth Medical School are designing will reportedly measure urinary calcium of each crewmember; keep track of each crewmember’s diet and monitor the exercise routine of each crewmember.

The mobile agents will also continually collect data on ambient carbon dioxide in the spacecraft; store and retrieve medical history of each crewmember as needed and analyse all of the above data and provide diagnostic feedback in a timely manner.

Once excessive calcium loss is detected, the mobile agents can recommend a prescription to the crewmember that might include increased exercise, pharmaceuticals or dietary intervention.

As part of this long-term project, the researchers will also evaluate other applications for this mobile agent technology.

Non-invasive measuring of calcium loss in osteoporosis patients or in people suffering from kidney stones, and connecting that to daily exercise, food and other personal and environmental information, might lead to better diagnosis, an improvement to the quality of life, and cost-saving prevention measures.

After the feasibility study, the researchers will progress to running simulations to determine if the proposed model is valid, and if the agent architecture can perform the required tasks.

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