Shields up! Shields up! ASTRONAUTS flying to MARS will arrive BRAIN DAMAGED, boffins claim
Spaaace travel hits mousy buffer
A NASA-funded study into the effects of long-term space travel has a troubling conclusion: astronauts going to Mars could arrive with brain damage.
The research, conducted by the University of California Irvine and published in the Science Advances journal, involved bombarding mice with ionised oxygen and titanium nuclei for six weeks – giving them a dose of particle radiation equivalent to what they would experience during a trip to Mars using today's propulsion technology and spacecraft shielding.
The results were not good. The mice all showed acute brain inflammation that changed the way their neurons fired, making them less efficient at transmitting electrochemical signals. That hampered their puzzle-solving skills and memory. The effects were similar to those shown by brain cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
"This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two to three-year round trip to Mars," said Dr Charles Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology in UC Irvine School of Medicine.
"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."
Damage was particularly noticeable in the medial pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus, which the researchers think would inhibit an astronaut's ability to process complex problems and deal with unexpected events – both of which are likely to occur when exploring a new planet.
U.S. space agency NASA knows that getting humans to Mars is going to take a lot of shielding to keep the fragile humans safe. But the study highlights quite how difficult this could be, considering the "very low" levels of simulated cosmic radiation used in the study.
The obvious answer is to build shielding around spaceships making the trip, but that has its problems. Shielding adds mass to the craft, increasing the cost of construction and the amount of fuel needed to get it to the Red Planet.
Metals like aluminium are also not very good at providing radiation shielding. Plastics are somewhat better, and some designs envisage using water, or even human faeces, as a shielding substance. But the research team thinks there may be a medical answer.
"We are working on pharmacologic strategies involving compounds that scavenge free radicals and protect neurotransmission," Limoli said. "But these remain to be optimised and are under development." ®