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Study Finds Long Stays in Space can Accelerate Alzheimer's

A recent study has found that long-duration missions, such as a proposed mission to Mars illustrated here, could accelerate the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Image Credit: NASA

A recent study has found that long-duration missions, such as a proposed mission to Mars illustrated here, could accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Image Credit: NASA

A NASA-funded study appearing in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that astronauts on long-duration missions, such as a mission to Mars, could have more to fear than even cancer. The radiation that crews would be exposed to during such a mission could actually accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Deep space is filled with radiation; we are protected from this radiation by Earth’s magnetic field. Astronauts traveling to distant worlds would have no protection from this threat. Apollo astronauts were fortunate in that their missions only lasted a few days (the longest Apollo lunar mission was Apollo 17, which lasted 12 days, 13 hours, and 52 minutes).

NASA has been directed to travel to several different locations, including an asteroid. This mission is slated to take place in the 2020s. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA has been directed to travel to several different locations, including an asteroid. This mission is slated to take place in the 2020s. Photo Credit: NASA

“Galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts,” said M. Kerry O’Banion, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and the study’s senior author. “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.”

With enough advanced warning, crews could enter specially protected segments of their spacecraft to avoid one of the most lethal forms of space radiation—solar flares. Currently, however, there is no shielding available for cosmic radiation, which permeates the space environment.

The planet Mars, a destination highlighted as a place where NASA wants to send astronauts to in the 2030s, has no appreciable magnetic field. This means that astronauts would have to closely monitor the amount of time that they spend outside of habitats that would need to be constructed to shield them from the ever-present threat of radiation.

A round trip to Mars could last some three years. NASA also has plans to send astronauts to an asteroid in the early 2020s.

Cosmic radiation exists in low levels—as such the longer that astronauts spend on missions, the greater their exposure.

NASA has been sponsoring studies such as this one for more than 25 years to gain a better grasp of the risks involved. It is hoped that countermeasures to offset the risk involved with deep space missions can be developed.

One of the most deadly sources of radiation in space is the Sun. However, astronauts can avoid the impact of solar flares by staying in a shielded room on their spacecraft. No such protection exists for low, long-term exposure to cosmic radiation. Image provided to AmericaSpace by Imaging the Cosmos / Chris Hetlage

One of the most deadly sources of radiation in space is the Sun. However, astronauts can avoid the impact of solar flares by staying in a shielded room on their spacecraft. No such protection exists for low, long-term exposure to cosmic radiation. Image provided to AmericaSpace by Imaging the Cosmos / Chris Hetlage

While NASA has known about the correlation between cancer, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal issues stemming from long-term exposure to cosmic radiation, the findings of this study of the effects of space radiation on neurodegeneration add an extra dimension to the risks that space flyers face—and one more concern that NASA has to contend with.

The project that O’Banion and his colleagues have been working on is no fly-by-night operation. The team has been studying how the brain’s biological processes could potentially be impacted by cosmic radiation for more than eight years.

Scientists looked into a specific form of radiation: high-mass, high-charged particles, or “HZEs” in particular. HZE particles travel through space at very high rates of speed. According to the study, they are flung across the cosmos by the force of exploding stars. These particles come in a wide range of forms—given this, researchers opted to focus on iron particles.

The selection of iron HZE particles was profound, as other particles created in other environments lack the mass and energy to penetrate the shielding of spacecraft—something the iron particles had no problem doing.

“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.”

NASA is working to send astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth-orbit for the first time in 40 years. This however, could greatly impact the health of astronauts who conduct these missions. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA is working to send astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time in 40 years. This, however, could greatly impact the health of astronauts who conduct these missions. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA decided to have the study conducted at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island at the agency’s Space Radiation Laboratory. This allowed scientists to take advantage of the facility’s particle accelerators. Researchers smashed various forms of matter together to simulate the dynamics of radioactive particles in space.

Scientists focused on whether or not radiation could speed up various factors that indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s, especially for those subjects with a predisposition of getting the disease. To accomplish this, researchers used mice, which have a well-understood pattern that can be observed as to how the disease impacts these animals over time.

The mice were exposed to various levels of radiation, including those comparable to astronauts on a Mars mission. Afterward, URMC graduate student Jonathan Cherry, who was one of the authors of the study, reviewed the impact of the exposure on the animals. Those mice exposed to Mars-mission levels of radiation were far more likely to fail tests to evaluate their memory. The issues with the mice’s memory appeared far earlier than would normally be the case, indicating that the level of radiation exposure impaired their cognitive abilities.

The mice’s brains also showed signs of vascular alteration, as well as in increase of beta amyloid, which is one of the signatures of Alzheimer’s.

“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.”

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No comments yet to Study Finds Long Stays in Space can Accelerate Alzheimer’s

  • I wonder what the Russians learned from their long duration stays on Salyut and Mir? One cosmonaut spent a record 487 days in space. Have they shared any medical data with us? The radiation exposure problem requires new propulsion systems to shorten travel time to/from Mars and other outposts.

  • Karol

    I wonder how long it will be before the anti-NASA howler monkeys who would love to scuttle SLS/Orion use this study to argue that we should shelve the manned space program until the Alzheimer’s problem is solved. I can almost hear them now:”Why build a Space Launch System to send humans into space, when it is physiologically impossible to do so without the danger of Alzheimer’s. We must wait until the problem is solved before proceeding with SLS/Orion.” I guess it’s one thing to “retire on Mars”, and quite another to recognize your grandchildren if they come for a visit.

    • Leonidas

      Karol, there is a saying in my country, and it goes like this: When you don’t want to bake a cake, you’ll always find excuses for rolling out the dough indefinitely’.

      The same is true for manned deep space exploration…

  • Leonidas

    Part of my post here, is a repost of a comment of mine on Centaury Dreams blog, concerning this new medical study.

    I don’t want to trivialise the seriousness of the health risks of space travel. Yet, many who read the aforementioned study, howl that the space advocates and ‘space cadets’ are in denial about the seriousness of all the helth issues and that this study is a smack on their face.

    Well, excuse me, but the whole thing feels to me like we have gone to Antarctica, stick out a thermometer and say ‘Oh my God, it’s -70 here, we’re gonna die!’. Well, put on adequate clothes for thermal shielding silly, build and carry with you the appropriate equipment and you’ll manage!

    Suddenly everyone’s shouting ‘Oh, space is dangerous, better stick our heads in the sand!’.

    Excuse me, but since Gagarin’s flight have we devoted any serious effort to build and test adequate radiation sheilding methods for deep-space habitats? To test and see what works and what doesn’t? Have we ever tried to test methods for artificial gravity in space? Nope. The only thing we’ve done is countless of paper studies. Hardware:0.

    I don’t pretend to be an expert at astronautics and I’m not a rocket scientist or engineer. I won’t pretend I have the solutions that others lack. Yet, being a space advocate, I won’t dwell into denial either. Of course radiation is a serious health hazard, as is zero-g and and a whole list of other things.

    But have we really devoted any serious effort and resources as a technological civilisation to address these health hazard issues of space travel? We’re just at the point where we are only identifying the problems: bone loss, eye damage, radiation risk and the lisk goes on. Have we done any serious work to mitigate these negative effects? The only thing we’re hearing is how much deadly the space environment can be (and of course it can be-there’s no denial about it).

    50+ years after Gagarin, we haven’t even tried to test a rotating habitat in space, to see if it works and if it’s a solution at all. And we haven’t even tested or tried to innovate any form of radiation shielding for long-term missions beyond Earth orbit. Well, maybe because we’re stuck in LEO for the past 4 decades.

    Space travel isn’t easy or risk-free, as this new radiation effects study in the article shows, but it seems at least premature to me to conclude that space travel is ultimately prohibitive for humans, without taking the time and effort to really try and address the issues at hand. And by addressing I don’t just mean paper studies.

    Just to use a crude analogy, and I know it isn’t exactly the same with deep space, but is Antarctica suitable for humans? It can freeze you to death. But with the use of heavy clothing and suitable equipment you can win a foothold there.

    • Joe

      Hi, Leonidas

      A couple of points about this research and your comments on it.

      First the potential adverse effects of radiation exposure have been known since the 1960’s (if not earlier). That is the reason I (and numerous others) favor concentrating on a return to the moon with the intent of learning to use lunar resources to (among other things) allow for the proper protective shielding, before attempting Martian or even Asteroid missions.

      Also, I am skeptical of this research. Practically no one in the current environment has not known someone directly or indirectly affected by Alzheimer’s. So to connect your research to it guarantees more publicity and attention (and perhaps more research grants). I need to emphasize that this is not meant to express skepticism on the radiation shielding challenge for long term (as in beyond cislunar space) spaceflight, only this particular (and rather politically convenient) connection.

      One more point. There was work underway in the 1960’s on using centrifugal force to simulate gravity and one flight experiment was conducted on Gemini 11.

      That work would have gone into the intended Post Apollo Program, but the budget cuts after the successful Apollo Lunar Landing ended all that.

      • Leonidas

        Hi Joe,

        Good points! I completely agree. Alzheimer’s is happening with or without space exploration. As you point out, it’s hard not to identify someone on our family or social environment that is not directly or indirectly suffering from this illness.

        I really don’t want to downplay the seriousness of space radiation exposure, yet as you mentioned, it is rather premature to say the least, to conclude what the long-term effects of space radiation are on humans, based on lab experiments on rats. And in today’s political climate, this is just another fine excuse for saying ‘Cut space exploration’.

        Ultimately, if you want to really study the effects of prolonged deep-space living, you really have to go out there and see. That doesn’t mean ‘go out there recklessly and take no precautions’, but Earth-based research can only give you some clues and pieces of the puzzle and it only goes that far.

        And on the last point you mentioned, about studies being made on artificial gravity since the 1960’s, that’s just my point. We have so many studies about radiation shielding and artificial gravity to last us until the end of the century, but no hardware came out of it at all. How can we conclude that radiation and zero-g are so big show-stoppers if we haven’t even tried to test out these studies practically in orbit or beyond, to address these issues?

  • Ok so it accelerates alzheimers, but that still means that the astronauts would have to actually have it or be at risk for it in the first place. Otherwise we’d have a ton of astronauts running around with alzheimers.

  • […] A NASA-funded study has shown (using mice) that the cosmic radiation experienced during interplanetary flight may be a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. […]