According to lead researcher M. Kerry O’Banion in a press release, ”Galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts. The possibility that radiation exposure in space may give rise to health problems such as cancer has long been recognized. However, this study shows for the first time that exposure to radiation levels equivalent to a mission to Mars could produce cognitive problems and speed up changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”
As part of the study, the researchers exposed mice with known timeframes for developing Alzheimer’s to the type of low-level radiation that astronauts would be exposed to over time on a long space journey. The mice were then put through tests that measured their memory and cognitive ability. The mice that were exposed to radiation showed significant cognitive impairment.
Going To Mars Could Damage The Brains Of Astronauts
The mice also showed physical signs of degradation. An examination of their brains showed differences in blood flow in their brain. Also, the mice exposed to radiation showed larger plaques of the type seen with Alzheimer’s patients.
“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.”
It’s not going to be an easy problem to solve, either. The radiation the researchers used in their testing is composed of highly charged iron particles, which are relatively common in space. Due to their size and energy, those particles can pass through the walls of a spaceship. Shielding from that radiation is no simple task.
“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.”