A space odyssey: cosmic rays may damage the brains of astronauts

Fri May 1, 2015 3:46pm EDT
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It may not be space debris, errant asteroids, supply shortages, thruster malfunctions or even the malevolent aliens envisioned in so many Hollywood films that thwart astronauts on any mission to Mars. It may be the ubiquitous galactic cosmic rays.

Researchers said on Friday long-term exposure to these rays that permeate space may cause dementia-like cognitive impairments in astronauts during any future round-trip Mars journey, expected to take at least 2-1/2 years.

In a NASA-funded study, mice exposed to highly energetic charged particles like those in galactic cosmic rays experienced declines in cognition and changes in the structure and integrity of brain nerve cells and the synapses where nerve impulses are sent and received.

The irradiated particles in galactic cosmic rays, remnants of star explosions called supernovas, can penetrate spacecraft and astronauts' bodies. Earth itself is protected by its magnetosphere.

University of California, Irvine radiation oncology professor Charles Limoli said "without a doubt" people would face the same issues as the mice.

"Astronauts may incur cognitive impairments that lead to performance decrements, confusion, increased anxiety and longer-term problems with cognitive health," said Limoli, whose study appears in the journal Science Advances.

This could compromise mission critical activities, especially if unanticipated situations arise during deep spaceflight, Limoli said.

The mice, genetically altered to have green fluorescent neurons to help structural analysis, were exposed to the rays at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and then analyzed six weeks later.   Continued...

This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light, in this handout image provided by NASA. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout