Astronauts on their way to Mars face a myriad of health risks, and new research has added yet one more danger to that list – cognitive impairment.
UC Irvine neuroscientist Charles Limoli and his colleagues subjected rodents to charged particle irradiation (fully ionized oxygen and titanium) at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory in an attempt to simulate cosmic radiation conditions similar to what astronauts would face on long space journeys.
The researchers found that such exposure to those highly energetic charged particles can cause significant damage to the central nervous system, resulting in cognitive impairments.”
“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two- to three-year round trip to Mars,” Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology in UCI’s School of Medicine, said in a recent statement. “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.”
While cognitive impairments would take months to manifest, the time needed for a manned mission to Mars would be enough for such deficits to develop.
So what can be done to protect future travelers to the Red Planet? Limoli suggests a few possibilities.
Spacecraft could be designed with increased shielding in certain areas, such as those used for rest and sleep. However, Limoli stresses, these highly energetic particles will traverse the ship nonetheless “and there is really no escaping them.”
Preventative treatments may also offer some hope. “We are working on pharmacologic strategies involving compounds that scavenge free radicals and protect neurotransmission,” Limoli said. “But these remain to be optimized and are under development.”
Although NASA funded the new experiment, the agency declined requests for interviews with its own radiation experts, reports The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
A NASA representative instead issued a written statement to WSJ’s Robert Lee Hotz: “NASA recognizes the importance of understanding the effects of space radiation on humans during long-duration missions beyond Earth orbit, and these studies and future studies will continue to inform our understanding as we prepare for the journey to Mars.”
Results of this research are published in an article — “What happens to your brain on the way to Mars” — in the journal Science Advances.
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