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New research published in the Journal Science Advances, undertaken by researchers from the University of California Irvine, has aimed to answer this very question. They found that mice exposed to galactic cosmic rays, similar to what astronauts would be exposed to in space, receive damage to the central nervous system, which includes the brain.
Research trial in brief
Six month-old male mice were subjected to a process known as ‘charged particle irradiation,’ essentially the same particles found in space. As a side note, the mice were genetically modified to display glowing neurons so the researchers could clearly see changes in their brains as it was happening. The mice also underwent a variety of cognitive and memory tests post exposure.
What did they find?
Mice exposed to this type of radiation had an increase in brain inflammation and there was also damage to the brain’s cells, including synaptic damage which means it is more difficult for brain to process messages between cells. After six weeks of being exposed to the galactic particles, it was also found that the exposed mice had significant deficits in behaviour along with deficits in learning, memory and problem solving.
Watch this short video which explains the results of this mouse study further.
Can we protect Astronauts in space from brain damage?
According to Dr Charles Limoli, one of the lead researchers on the project, spacecraft could be designed to include areas of increased shielding, such as those used for rest and sleep. However, he said that these highly energetic particles will traverse the ship nonetheless.
“We are working on pharmacological strategies involving compounds that protect neurotransmission,” Dr Limoli said. “But these remain to be optimized and are under development.”
Dr Limoli’s research is part of NASA’s Human Research Program which is investigating how space radiation affects astronauts and learning ways to mitigate those effects. While this result has only been seen in mice Dr Limoli and his research team state that it is important for NASA to consider these risks as it plans for missions to Mars and beyond.
If you want to find out more about this fascinating topic you can also listen to this podcast where they spoke with the Presidents of the US and Australian Mars Societies who talk about what it will take to get people to Mars.
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