Some Astronauts May Be at Risk for Cognitive Impairment

    Johns Hopkins scientists report that rats exposed to high-energy particles, simulating conditions astronauts would face on a long-term deep space mission, show lapses in attention and slower reaction times, even when the radiation exposure is in extremely low dose ranges.

    The cognitive impairments — which affected a large subset, but far from all, of the animals — appear to be linked to protein changes in the brain, the scientists say. The findings, if found to hold true in humans, suggest it may be possible to develop a biological marker to predict sensitivity to radiation’s effects on the human brain before deployment to deep space. The study, funded by NASA’s National Space Biomedical Research Institute, is described in the April issue of the journal Radiation Research.

    When astronauts are outside of the Earth’s magnetic field, spaceships provide only limited shielding from radiation exposure, explains study leader Robert D. Hienz, Ph.D., an associate professor of behavioral biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. If they take space walks or work outside their vehicles, they will be exposed to the full effects of radiation from solar flares and intergalactic cosmic rays, he says, and since neither the moon nor Mars have a planet-wide magnetic field, astronauts will be exposed to relatively high radiation levels, even when they land on these surfaces.

    But not everyone will be affected the same way, his experiments suggest. “In our radiated rats, we found that 40 to 45 percent had these attention-related deficits, while the rest were seemingly unaffected,” Hienz says. “If the same proves true in humans and we can identify those more susceptible to radiation’s effects before they are harmfully exposed, we may be able to mitigate the damage.”

    If a biomarker can be identified for humans, it could have even broader implications in determining the best course of treatment for patients receiving radiotherapy for brain tumors or identifying which patients may be more at risk from radiation-based medical treatments, the investigators note.

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