What Happens to Your Brain in Deep Space Ain't Good

An egg in a frying pan, from the Your Brain on Drugs campaign
of the 1970s.  Unfortunately, research shows this is the same effect
deep space travel could have on the human brain. 
In February of this year, Mars One, a non-profit Dutch organization, announced the selection of 100 top candidates for a scheduled 2024 trip to Mars, a trip that may not be possible without inflicting debilitating damage to the brains of those selected for the flight.  The same can be said of flights by NASA or any other group considering such a venture.

A trip from Earth to Mars is estimated by NASA to take about 260 days if launched during the period the orbits of the Earth and Mars are closest, something that happens about every 1.6 years.  Over the eight months needed to travel to Mars, most of it spent in deep space, outside the  protective bubble of Earth's magnetosphere, astronauts will be exposed to cosmic rays left over from past supernova.

According to an article in the May 1 edition of Science Advances, research by UC Irvine's radiation oncology lab, 260 days in space, much of it in deep space outside our planet's protective magnetosphere, will cause damage to the human brain similar to the dysfunction common in brain cancer patients who receive photon-based radiation treatments at higher doses.  Damage to the point to make if difficult if not impossible for astronauts to handle the technology of their spacecraft and possibly even taking care of themselves before they arrive on Mars. 

How this was determined
To determine the effects of deep-space radiation, rodents were subjected to charged particle irradiation (fully ionized oxygen and titanium) at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at the Brookhaven National Laboratory before being sent back to the UC Irvine lab.  What researchers found is that found that exposure to highly energetic charged particles -- much like those found in the galactic cosmic rays that bombard astronauts during extended spaceflights -- cause significant damage to the central nervous system, resulting in cognitive impairments.

Zen in the Art of Writing
by Ray Bradbury

Click on image for details
"This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two- to three-year round trip to Mars," said Charles Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology in UCI's School of Medicine. "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 deficits in astronauts would take months to show, Limoli said, the time required for a mission to Mars is sufficient for such deficits to develop. People working for extended periods on the International Space Station do not face the same level of bombardment with galactic cosmic rays, as they are still within the protective magnetosphere of Earth.

The researchers found that exposure to these particles resulted in brain inflammation, which disrupted the transmission of signals among neurons. Imaging revealed how the brain's communication network was impaired through reductions in the structure of nerve cells called dendrites and spines. Additional synaptic alterations in combination with the structural changes interfered with the capability of nerve cells to efficiently transmit electrochemical signals. Furthermore, these differences were parallel to decreased performance on behavioral tasks designed to test learning and memory.

According to Limoli, a partial solution is to design spacecraft with areas of increased shielding, such as those used for rest and sleep. However, highly energetic particles will still pass through the ship and any shielding nonetheless, he noted, "and there is really no escaping them."

Preventative treatments 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."

Related stories:
Story Source:  Materials provided by University of California - Irvine.  Vipan K. Parihar, Barrett Allen, Katherine K. Tran, Trisha G. Macaraeg, Esther M. Chu, Stephanie F. Kwok, Nicole N. Chmielewski, Brianna M. Craver, Janet E. Baulch, Munjal M. Acharya, Francis A. Cucinotta, Charles L. Limoli. What happens to your brain on the way to Mars. Science Advances, 01 May 2015


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