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Study: Deep-Space Radiation Could Damage Astronauts’ Brains via The Wall Street Journal

Cosmic rays could leave travelers to Mars confused, forgetful and slow to react

As NASA develops plans for a manned mission to Mars, scientists said Friday that cosmic rays during an interplanetary voyage could cause subtle brain damage, leaving astronauts confused, forgetful and slow to react to the unexpected.

In a NASA-funded study of radiation-exposed mice published Friday in Science Advances, researchers at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Nevada warned that prolonged bombardment by charged particles in deep space could affect the brain cells involved in decision-making and memory, with implications for possible manned forays into deep space.

“These sorts of cognitive changes could manifest during the mission and could be a real problem,” said Cary Zeitlin at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, who wasn’t involved in the study. In 2013, Dr. Zeitlin reported radiation levels between Earth and Mars detected by the Mars Science Laboratory craft during its cruise to the red planet, and found that the exposure was the equivalent of getting “a whole-body CT scan once every 5 or 6 days.”

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To test the neural effects of deep-space travel, a dozen researchers led by UC Irvine radiation oncologist Charles Limoli briefly exposed mice to charged particles in a radiation beam at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. Six weeks later, they tested the irradiated mice and found the lab animals lacked normal curiosity, were less active, and became more easily confused, compared with a control group, the researchers said.

“Their curiosity is way down,” said Dr. Limoli. “They don’t want to explore novelties.”

The researchers found the mice had damaged neurons and synapses in areas associated with memory and decision-making, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

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