Deep space travel might severely damage astronauts' brains

  • Deep space travel might severely damage astronauts' brains

Deep space travel might severely damage astronauts' brains

On a long-term spaceflight mission to Mars, astronauts will be continuously exposed to low-dose radiation in deep space. A study published today (August 5) in the open-access journal eNeuro, has highlighted the need for better protection in space.

A new study revealed how radiation from deep space missions can affect the brain functions of astronauts.

"Our study represents the first to document the significant adverse consequences of space relevant radiation dose rates on the brain, and points to the heightened risks associated with NASA's upcoming plans for travel to Mars", said University of California, Irvine's Professor Charles Limoli and colleagues.

The research focuses on low-dose radiation exposure experiments in mice, and the researchers argue that their simulation is not only realistic but also rather horrifying as NASA takes the first steps in the direction of hashing out crewed missions to Mars.

It involved using a new neutron irradiation facility to expose laboratory mice to the same levels of radiation they'd experience in space.

They found that the radiation exposure impaired cellular signaling in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, resulting in learning and memory impairments. This data, according to the team, "suggests that the incidence of severe impairments in learning and memory, and the emergence of distress behaviors may occur in an unacceptably high percentage of astronauts".

One-in-three astronauts are also likely to suffer memory loss and the astronauts may also struggle with decision making. According to these studies, space radiation affects astronauts once they venture out of Earth's orbit, which is no longer protected by the planet's magnetic field.

"NASA is working one more advanced shielding approaches for protecting astronauts and we along with other groups are working on pharmacologic countermeasures for protecting the brain and body from the harmful effects of space radiation exposure", Limoli said. Ensuring a spacecraft has the protective capabilities to keep the crew healthy (and happy) will be a major challenge, and radiation exposure will most definitely have to be accounted for.

But Limoli and his team aren't concerned about the potential for these impairments and behaviors during future missions. "This is not a deal-breaker".

The prolonged space radiation exposure resulted in "serious neurocognitive complications" and "impaired neurotransmission".