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Travel to Mars could damage the brain

U. ROCHESTER (US) — The cosmic radiation that would bombard astronauts on deep space missions to places like Mars could accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, say researchers. 

“Galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts,” says M. Kerry O’Banion, a professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center department of neurobiology and anatomy and the senior author of the study.

“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.”

While space is full of radiation, the earth’s magnetic field generally protects the planet and people in low earth orbit from these particles. However, once astronauts leave orbit, they are exposed to constant shower of various radioactive particles.

With appropriate warning, astronauts can be shielded from dangerous radiation associated with solar flares. But there are also other forms of cosmic radiation that, for all intents and purposes, cannot be effectively blocked.

Because this radiation exists in low levels, the longer an astronaut is in deep space, the greater the exposure. This is a concern for NASA as the agency is planning manned missions to a distant asteroid in 2021 and to Mars in 2035. The round trip to the red planet, in particular, could take as long as three years.

Iron onslaught

For over 25 years, NASA has been funding research to determine the potential health risks of space travel in an effort to both develop countermeasures and determine whether or not the risks warranted sending men and women on extended missions in deep space.

Since that time, several studies have demonstrated the potential cancer, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal impact of galactic cosmic radiation. The new study, which appears in PLOS ONE, examines the potential impact of space radiation on neurodegeneration, in particular, the biological processes in the brain that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. O’Banion—whose research focuses on how radiation affects the central nervous system—and his team have been working with NASA for over eight years.

The researchers studied the impact of a particular form of radiation called high-mass, high-charged (HZE) particles. These particles—which are propelled through space at very high speeds by the force of exploding stars—come in many different forms. For this study the researcher chose iron particles. Unlikely hydrogen protons, which are produced by solar flares, the mass of HZE particles like iron, combined with their speed, enable them to penetrate solid objects such as the wall and protective shielding of a spacecraft.

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

Faulty recall

A portion of the research was conducted at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. NASA located its research operation at Brookhaven to take advantage of the Lab’s particle accelerators which, by colliding matter together at very high speeds, can reproduce the radioactive particles found in space.

The researchers specifically wanted to examine whether or not radiation exposure had the potential to accelerate the biological and cognitive indicators of Alzheimer’s disease, particularly in individuals who may be predisposed to developing the disease. To accomplish this they chose study the impact on animal models of Alzheimer’s disease. These particular models have been extensively studied and scientists understand the precise timeframe in which the disease progresses over time.

At Brookhaven, the animals were exposed to various doses of radiation, including levels comparable to what astronauts would be experience during a mission to Mars. Back in Rochester, a team of researchers, including first author Jonathan Cherry, evaluated the cognitive and biological impact of the exposure.

The mice underwent a series of experiments during which they had to recall objects or specific locations. The researchers observed that mice exposed to radiation were far more likely to fail these tasks—suggesting neurological impairment—earlier than these symptoms would typically appear.

The brains of the mice also showed signs of vascular alterations and a greater than normal accumulation of beta amyloid, the protein “plaque” that accumulates in the brain and is one of the hallmarks of the disease.

“These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” says 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.”

Additional co-authors include Jacqueline Williams and John Olschowka of URMC and Bin Liu, Jeffrey Frost, and Cynthia Lemere of Harvard Medical School. NASA funded the study.

Source: University of Rochester

chat8 Comments


  1. Anita

    No wonder that we were meant to stay on Earth.If we could that easily change our place evolution would not have taken that long.

  2. Jay

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

    Purely as a thought experiment… what if the ship were encased in diamond? How thick would the shielding need to be?

  3. MarsInitiative

    Where are all the space advocates? It’s time to go to Mars! http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/340329

  4. Keith

    Is there an evacuated aerogel that could provide adequate protection from harmful radiation at a mass practical for a shot to Mars?
    Vacuum sealed magnetic lattice for iron.
    Fractalize the lattice to make it light and strong.
    Make it mostly carbon to make it cheap and strong.
    Make it chemically heterogeneous to make it multipurpose.
    Make it semi-conducting to make it programmable.
    Vacuum barriers can be moved to allow for fluid/gas storage at variable pressures.
    Make the volume variable to control lift and buoyancy.
    The aerogel could be manufactured toward the outer edge of the atmosphere if the volume would make ground launch too difficult.
    Atomic hydrogen could be collected in the upper atmosphere for rocket fuel.
    Craft buoyancy could make atmospheric launch possible.

  5. John William

    All set to travel to Mars? Scientists say the cosmic radiations there could potentially damage he brain. Share the information discreetly on the anonymous channel for more insights. http://bit.ly/UWvZLQ

  6. Fernando Cassia

    Look at the upside…. you could send the same astronauts with Alzheimer over and over again to Mars, no complaints! :

    -Good news! you´re going to Mars!
    -That´s great, I´d love to go to Mars…. but… who are you?
    -It doesn´t matter, you´re going to Mars!
    -That´s great, I´d love to go to Mars….

    (repeat ad-infinitum)



  7. ZERO

    Why not produce a craft that produces its own electromagnetic shield thus solving weight issues. The problem with this and many other long term needs for space travel is the energy cost. We need to get the ability to produce higher energy systems in space even if it means nukes in order to provide the energy needed for long distance human travel. Look at curiosity for example and how it dropped the solar for a more stable and reliable energy source. Further investment in non solar space energy needs investigation so that we are able to meet the needs of humans in space.

  8. Anonymous

    The authors of this article are downplaying the dangers of lethal cosmic radiation – it’s much more dangerous than they portray here. Mars astronauts in an unshielded ship would likely be either dead or deathly ill from radiation exposure by the time they reached Mars. Yet we’re supposed to believe that the Apollo astronauts spent so much time on the Moon, living there in an unshielded, aluminum-foil-covered contraption (the lunar lander) that couldn’t even be tested prior to use. Now that NASA is talking about traveling to Mars, the truth about deep space radiation is leaking out. Lethal deep space cosmic radiation is why none of the Apollo astronauts ever left Earth orbit, and why the Moon landings were all hoaxed. I wonder if they will try to hoax a Mars mission in the future? The technology to produce video hoaxes is certainly much more advanced now than it was in 1969, when even personal computers didn’t yet exist. By 2035, CGI technology will probably be indistinguishable from reality. Casting call for the upcoming Mars landing hoax – aspiring actors, sign up now!

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