1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Cosmic rays
J. Yang / NSF
Little is know about the ultra high-energy cosmic rays that regularly penetrate the atmosphere.
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updated 12/31/2012 8:42:03 PM ET 2013-01-01T01:42:03

Radiation in space might harm the brains of astronauts in deep space by accelerating the development of Alzheimer's disease, a new study on mice suggests.

The research reveals another risk that manned deep-space missions to places such as Mars or the asteroids could pose, scientists added.

"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," study author Kerry O'Banion, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said in a statement.

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Space is filled with radiation that can harm people. While Earth's magnetic field generally protects the planet, once astronauts venture beyond low-Earth orbit, they are constantly bombarded by a shower of dangerous particles known as cosmic rays. The longer an astronaut is in deep space, the greater the risk, which is especially of concern given NASA plans for manned missions to an asteroid in 2025 and to Mars by about 2035 — the round trip to the Red Planet alone could take at least two years.

For more than 25 years, NASA has funded studies to see what the potential dangers of space travel might be. For instance, past research analyzed the potential impact of cosmic rays on the risk for cancer and potential problems with the cardiovascular or musculoskeletal systems.

Now scientists have for the first time examined the effects space radiation might have on neurodegeneration — in particular, the biological processes in the brain linked with the development of Alzheimer's disease, which typically involves progressive mental decline over several years. They found "galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts," O'Banion said. [ Inside the Brain: Photo Journey Through Time ]

Perils of space radiation
O'Banion and his colleaguesinvestigated a specific kind of space radiation known as high-mass, high-charged (or HZE) particles. These particles zip through space at very high speeds, likely the result of exploding stars and other deep-space catastrophes from elsewhere in the galaxy. Unlike cosmic rays consisting just of hydrogen nuclei, which solar flares generate, the mass and speed of HZE particles allow them to punch through solid objects such as a spacecraft, or any astronauts inside.

"Because iron particles pack a bigger wallop, it is extremely difficult from an engineering perspective to effectively shield against them," O'Banion said. "One would have to essentially wrap a spacecraft in a 6-foot block of lead or concrete."

The scientists focused on the impact of iron HZE particles generated by particle accelerators at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. Mice were dosed throughout their body with levels of radiation comparable to what astronauts might receive during a mission to Mars.

The mental function of the mice was tested with a series of experiments — for instance, they had to recognize places linked with unpleasant electric shocks to their feet — and rodents dosed with radiation were far more likely to fail at these tasks. The brains of the mice also showed signs of inflamed blood vessels, and possessed abnormally high levels of beta amyloid, a protein that accumulates as one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease.

"These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer's disease," O'Banion said. "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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Space radiation vs. astronaut
It remains uncertain why these HZE particles might have this effect on the brain.

"This is, of course, the $10 million question," O'Banion told SPACE.com. The fact the researchers saw a blood vessel response, but not clear evidence of brain inflammation "suggests the possibility that the radiation effects are actually in the body of the mice, and that changes there might be affecting amyloid deposition."

O'Banion did caution "we gave the radiation all at once — the mice experienced over a few minutes what astronauts will experience over three years. We have no idea whether the biological effects of HZE particles will be the same when given at low dose rates. Many would argue that ours is a worse-case scenario, and that the changes are likely to be entirely different since the body might adapt to small chronic dosing."

In the future, O'Banion and his colleagues will examine the effects the brain experiences from exposure to radiation elsewhere in the body. They also plan to see whether space radiation might influence development of Parkinson's disease.

"I would add that there are at least three other laboratories pursuing similar studies," O'Banion said. "The nice thing about this is that we will soon know if our results hold up in other labs."

The scientists detailed their findings online Dec. 31 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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