Radiation in space may change astronauts' brain structure
Even after 54 years of sending astronauts into space, NASA is still learning about how space conditions affect the human body. Currently, the agency is studying the effects of long-duration space flight on human vision, with the twins study. Researchers continue to analyze how microgravity wears away at the musculoskeletal system.
Now, new research on mice indicates that the space environment may also have a significant impact on the brain. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers analyzed how cosmic rays, highly charged particles percolating throughout space, may impact the brains of mice; they found that the mice exposed to this space-like radiation were much less curious and more confused than their non-exposed counterparts.
Six weeks after exposure, researchers at UC Irvine noticed distinct changes to the brains of the mice, notably inflammation that disrupted communication between the neurons. According to the study, the particles acted like tiny bullets, flying into the brain and breaking off neuronal structures known as dendrites. The loss of these branch-like synapses, which carry electrochemical signals between neurons, are often associated with cognitive impairments and Alzheimer’s disease.
Going one step further, the researchers did some behavioral experiments with the exposed mice to see how these brain changes might affect their memory and learning abilities. Sure enough, the mice exhibited less curiosity and seemed more confused than mice who hadn’t been exposed to space-like radiation. These symptoms are similar to the cognitive changes brain cancer patients experience when undergoing radiation treatments.