Radiation exposure on Mars voyage could damage astronauts' brains

Concern for astronauts on long-term missions mounts as a new study reveals the damaging effects of radiation on the brain.
By Kathy Fey | May 01, 2015
The perils of traveling to Mars are many, and now a new concern has entered the discussion. Scientists are now considering how cosmic rays could have a damaging effect on astronauts' brains.

According to NBCNews, a study looking into the effects of high-energy radiation on mouse neurons revealed that mice exposed to radiation similar to what is found in space showed brain cell degradation and performed worse on cognitive tests.

"This is surprising, and it suggests that NASA has a new complication to consider when they send astronauts into deep space," Charles Limoli of the University of California said. "Over the course of a two- to three-year mission, the damage would accumulate. To mitigate it, we need to understand it."

When it comes to putting humans on Mars, radiation is a clear consideration, as the radiation levels on Mars have been shown to be similar to those detected on the International Space Station, but would be experienced for a much longer period of time by explorers on Mars. The study raises the concern that radiation could impair astronauts' ability to think quickly and clearly.

"NASA recognizes the importance of understanding the effects of space radiation on humans during long-duration missions beyond Earth orbit, and these studies and future studies will continue to inform our understanding as we prepare for the journey to Mars," Stephanie Schierholz of NASA said.

Spacecraft and spacesuit shielding is under development, but scientists admit that only so much radiation can be effectively deflected. The study team is also looking into the possibility of developing medication to counter the effects of cosmic rays on astronauts' brains.

Some believe the study indicates more extreme results than would play out in practical application, as the radiation levels used in the experiments were greater than what would be experienced in space.

"The dose rates they are using are approximately a million times greater than what astronauts would experience on a trip to Mars," Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society said. Zubrin and others believe that the human body could counteract much of the damage caused by radiation when exposed to small levels over a long period of time.

The study was published in Science Advances.

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