Although it’s clear that flying people to Mars or to other parts of outer space is among NASA’s top priorities, a new study suggests that all that space radiation may result in permanent damage to the brain.
Researchers from the University of California-Irvine had ran a series of tests on mice, who had suffered from central nervous system damage and other cognitive issues when exposed to highly-charged particles.
These particles were meant to simulate the cosmic radiation astronauts will likely encounter when traveling in deep space. According to UCI professor of radiation oncology and study author Charles Limoli, the findings don’t bode well for astronauts who may be sent to two- to three-year round trips to Mars.”
Performance decrements, memory deficits, and loss of awareness and focus during spaceflight may affect mission-critical activities, and exposure to these particles may have long-term adverse consequences to cognition throughout life,” Limoli warned. Aside from astronauts, NASA also hopes to send non-astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, but critics have suggested that the space agency’s technology is very far from ready at this point.
The study, whose findings were published Friday on the Science Advances journal, involved lab rats, who were exposed to charged particle irradiation for six weeks at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory. As a result of the exposure to radiation, the rats’ nerve cells were notably impaired, with the rodents unable to transmit signals among neurons. “Like a bullet, charged particles hit dendritic branches and caused them to break off,” lead author Limoli observed. “It’s well known that losing these dendritic branches is linked to cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s and other diseases.” He added that animals subjected to radiation “lacked curiosity” in new situations and were more prone to confusion.
At the present, astronauts spend time at the International Space Station in shifts of about six months or so. However, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko began in March the first one-year mission at ISS, in an attempt to see how extended trips to space affect the human mind and body.