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Thousands of people have volunteered for a potential mission to Mars, but if any of them end up making the trip, they might lose a few brain cells along the way.
New research finds that exposure to cosmic rays during the long journey, expected to take about six to eight months, can damage the brain and lead to dementia-like impairment.
“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two- to three-year round trip to Mars,” Charles Limoli, professor of radiation oncology at the UC Irvine School of Medicine, said in a news release. “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.”
Limoli said that while certain parts of the spacecraft could be shielded, the brain-dulling particles would still get on board.
“There is really no escaping them,” he said.
Astronauts in the International Space Station don’t face the same risks as they are protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere. However, once outside that protective zone, exposure to cosmic rays — many of which are remnants of supernova explosions — becomes a problem.
To mimic that exposure, Limoli and a team of researchers exposed mice to the accelerated charged particles found in cosmic rays. Six weeks after exposure, the mice were found to have inflammation in the brain, which blocked signals among neurons, according to the study published on May 1 in the journal Science Advances.
These alterations in the brain led to changes in how the mice behaved. On tests of memory and learning, mice exposed to cosmic rays were more easily confused and lost their tendency to explore new situations.
If we really are alone in the universe, should we take Earth’s life to other planets? Especially as we might already have the means (full text available to subscribers)