Study: Astronauts may develop dementia-like symptoms on way to Mars

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The technological challenge of getting to Mars is a huge hurdle, but it may be biology that holds humanity back from venturing to the red planet. (KABC)

The technological challenge of getting to Mars is a huge hurdle, but it may be biology that holds humanity back from venturing to the red planet.

A new UC Irvine study shows that astronauts could develop symptoms similar to dementia on their journey to Mars, because their brains would be bombarded with destructive space radiation.

"These charged particles are traveling near the speed of light, and will traverse the whole of the spacecraft, and certainly the tissues of the body and the brain," said Charles Limoli, a UC Irvine professor of radiation and oncology.

The NASA-funded study exposed mice to highly energetic, charged particles for the study, which are similar to those found on the galactic cosmic rays that astronauts are exposed to in space. Experimenters then tested the animals' learning and memory functions.

The results showed significant damage to the central nervous system, resulting in brain impairments.

"It's uncertain exactly how this would manifest in astronauts; however, there could be problems in problem solving, anxiety or the ability to respond to an unanticipated situation that might be encountered in deep space travel," Limoli said.

On Earth, the magnetisphere protects humans from the charged particles. But astronauts who are traveling in space for a typical trip to Mars and back -- an average time period of three years -- are at risk of developing dementia-like symptoms, according to the study.

Limoli says NASA needs to be aware of the problem and take measures to protect their brains from the particles. He is working on solutions, like shielding strategies, mitigating drugs or protective technology.

"The symptoms the astronauts might exhibit would be similar to mild cognitive impairment, but, again, I don't foresee any overt, adverse reaction to these particles that would prevent or stop any mission-critical activities. There could be more likely subtle affects that could accumulate over time," Limoli said.
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