Home > Causes of dementia, Dementia risk, Prevention > Is There Dementia In Space?

Is There Dementia In Space?

To be honest, this is a question I’ve never pondered.  However, I will admit that it’s a logical one, and it appears that there are people who have been pondering it for some time.  According to the results of a study published on Dec. 31, 2012, in the journal PLOS ONE, those brave souls who venture out toward Mars and beyond will be increasing their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, due to the effects of cosmic radiation.

For the last 25 years, the contributions of radiation to diseases like cancer have been well studied by NASA, as well as its impact on the body’s cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.  And now, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, in conjunction with NASA, have studied how this radiation could influence cognitive functioning and changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s.

People on Earth and in its atmosphere, including low orbit around the planet, are for the most part protected from this radiation.  However, astronauts who leave earth’s orbit are no longer shielded in this way, and are bombarded by many different radioactive particles.  It is possible to avoid injury from those particles that are associated with solar flares, however there are many other forms of radiation out there that we cannot yet protect ourselves from.

Because this radiation exists in relatively low amounts, according to scientists with NASA, the astronauts most at risk from this kind of radiation are those who will be spending a significant period of time in space.  Since manned expeditions to a distant asteroid are being planned for 2021, and to Mars in 2035, NASA is particularly interested in finding ways to counteract the effects of radiation exposure.  (It is estimated that travel to Mars and back could take as long as three years.)

This most recent study looked at the impact of a particular form of radiation — high-mass, high-charged (HZE) particles — which are propelled through space at high velocities by the force of exploding stars.  Iron particles in particular were selected, as opposed to hydrogen particles, which are produced by solar flares.  The iron particles, because of their mass and the speed with which they are propelled through space, allow them to penetrate solid objects such as a spacecraft’s outer shell and protective shielding.  Work was conducted, in part, at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.  This was done in order to take advantage of the Laboratory’s particle accelerators, allowing researchers to more closely approximate the speed of radioactive particles found in space.

Scientists used mice for the study, and exposed them to various doses of radiation — including those approximating what astronauts would be exposed to on a trip to Mars.  They then put the mice through a series of experiments that were designed to measure the cognitive and biological effects of the radiation exposure, in which they had to recall the locations of specific objects.  Mice exposed to radiation were more likely to fail these tests, suggesting that they had neurological impairment not seen in the control group.  Upon physical examination, those mice that were exposed to radiation also showed vascular changes in their brains, as well as greater accumulations of beta amyloid — one of the proteins that accumulates in plaques, and is considered to be a distinguishing characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

As a result of this study, scientists concluded that radiation exposure in space does accelerate changes in the brain that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.  This points to one more factor that NASA will have to take into consideration as it makes plans for humanity to continue to explore space.

(Read the original article here.)

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