Decision time? Check out our latest product comparisons

Alzheimer’s added to dangers faced by deep space astronauts

By

January 3, 2013

Future manned deep space missions would expose astronauts to levels of radiation that can ...

Future manned deep space missions would expose astronauts to levels of radiation that can accelerate the onset of Alzheimer's disease (Image: NASA, JAXA)

Psychiatrists involved with the early days of NASA’s space program were concerned astronauts might succumb to “space madness” as a result of experiencing prolonged periods of microgravity and claustrophobic isolation. While their fears turned out to be unfounded, a new study has found cause for concern for the mental faculties of astronauts on planned future deep space missions. The study shows that the levels of radiation an astronaut would be exposed to on a mission to Mars could cause cognitive problems and accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

With astronauts exposed to a continuous stream of various radioactive particles, which we on terra firma are largely protected from by the earth’s magnetic field, NASA has been funding research to determine the potential health risks of such exposure on space travelers for over 25 years. In that time, numerous studies have shown that galactic cosmic radiation can poses a cancer risk and has a negative impact on cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. Now neurodegeneration can be added to the list of potential dangers.

A team from the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, led by M. Kerry O’Banion, M.D., Ph.D., which has been working with NASA for over eight years, focused on the impact of high-mass, high-charged (HZE) particles. Unlike hydrogen protons that are produced by solar flares and which astronauts can take precautions against with appropriate warning, HZE particles are propelled through space at very high speeds from the force of exploding stars. They come in various forms, including iron particles, which is the one the researchers chose to examine.

“Because iron particles pack a bigger wallop it is extremely difficult from an engineering perspective to effectively shield against them,” said O’Banion. “One would have to essentially wrap a spacecraft in a six-foot block of lead or concrete.”

With the specific aim of examining whether or not radiation exposure had the potential to accelerate the biological and cognitive indicators of Alzheimer’s disease, particularly in those with a predisposition to developing it, the researchers used animal models – namely mice – for which the precise timeframe of the disease’s progression has been extensively studied and is understood.

The animals were exposed to various doses of radiation – including comparable levels to what astronauts would experience on a trip to Mars – created by smashing matter together at very high speeds using the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

In a series of experiments in which the mice had to recall objects or specific locations, the researchers observed a higher rate of failure amongst those that were exposed to radiation. The brains of the mice also showed signs of vascular alterations and a greater than normal accumulation of the protein “plaque” beta amyloid, the accumulation of which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

“These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” said O’Banion. “This is yet another factor that NASA, which is clearly concerned about the health risks to its astronauts, will need to take into account as it plans future missions.”

The results of the study will be of obvious concern to NASA, which is planning manned missions to an asteroid in the next decade, and to Mars in 2035.

The team’s study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: University of Rochester Medical Center

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
7 Comments

Expensive speculation only....

If they had conclusive evidence then they would have a good idea of who was going to develop Alzheimer's disease... maybe even a way to counter it....

We hear all sorts of Scientific BS about trips to Mars, much the same as was bandied around about automobile travel, air travel.. Just the "Science" behind the speculation increases yearly, so no-one can doubt that it is all correct....

Gotta Love these stories..

MD
3rd January, 2013 @ 03:56 am PST

It's beginning to look like man should not venture into long-distance space journeys. With modern cameras and mechanical gadgets producing amazing results from the Curiosity Mars project, there really isn't any need to actually step foot on the planet. There is just a strong desire to say:"we're going there". It makes the mission is so much more difficult, having to provide food and sustenance for a long period of time.

Mars is the only planet that is worth visiting at all. The gas giants give out vast amounts of radiation, so we would probably not even be able to visit the various moons.Robots will definitely do the job, safely.

Presumably, one could protect the astronauts with an electromagnetic field generated around the spacecraft. I wonder whether this would deflect iron particles as well as various cosmic rays.

windykites1
3rd January, 2013 @ 09:39 am PST

Instead of shooting th money into space (where we or our grandchildren children will never be) how about using that money to find a cure for Alzheimers!

Pks29733steel
3rd January, 2013 @ 01:00 pm PST

Anybody who would venture any distance into space with today's technology or that of the foreseeable future is just plane nuts (JPN).

JAT
3rd January, 2013 @ 02:58 pm PST

Earth will be hit with a massive solar storm for a period of 1 week. I expect the magnetic shield to fail for a while.

Stewart Mitchell
3rd January, 2013 @ 04:10 pm PST

@ Pks29733steel - there has been more positive fall out of technology from space exploration than you can even think about. I suppose you use your cell phone and computer a lot. Well the tech from those have a base from the space exploration programs.

@ JAT - granted the space capsules used today are very primitive. More exploration will improve that along with the propulsion systems.

Pick up your courage and read the book titled: "A Case for Mars" by Robert Zubrin. While I doubt that it'll do any good, it just may give you some new insights into things.

As for the rest of it, well it sounds like another scare tactic from the scaredy-cats that are to afraid of their own shadows to want anyone to go exploring. If these type of people were still in charge yet, we would all still be living in caves.

Man's nature is to explore. The ships that Columbus used were very primitive compared to the later ships that helped explore the new world.

I just get so tired of listening to people that are always so negative about everything. It just makes me wonder at times how the human race has managed to come this far at all.

JMOdom
3rd January, 2013 @ 05:02 pm PST

Alzheimer's is caused by an enzyme disorder punching tiny holes through the brain will cause an entirely different type of damage.

If we are protected by a magnetic field on earth wrap the ship in a magnetic field.

Slowburn
4th January, 2013 @ 03:19 am PST
Post a Comment

Login with your gizmag account:

Or Login with Facebook:


Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our 29,012 articles