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Will Deep Space Travel Mess Up Your Brain?

Will Deep Space Travel Mess Up Your Brain?

Who among us, if we got the chance, would refuse a trip into space? No one, that’s who. Because even though you’d have to sit on top of a rocket powerful enough to overcome Earth’s gravity and more than one person has died when things didn’t go right, the chance to see our little blue ocean planet from 200 miles up is too tantalizing to reject.

Too bad all space wants to do is mess you up.

We’ve known for a while that space travel can have some big effects on the body, most notably on the bones. But a new study indicates that deep space travel may cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center blasted mice with irradiated iron ions, the same ions that would pummel astronauts zooming through space on their way to, say, Mars. The mice absorbed the equivalent radiation relative to their size as a human would receive on a two-to-three year Mars mission. What they found was downright terrifying.

The irradiated mice were much more likely to suffer memory loss. More terrifying? The irradiated mice had a buildup of something called amyloid beta, which is an indication of Alzheimer’s disease in both humans and rats. This could be due to damage done to the DNA which keeps the brain’s immune response from functioning properly.

Space Alzheimer’s? Great.

We’ve been traveling in space for a while now. How come we haven’t seen these effects in our non-rodent astronauts? It has to do with the type of particle we’re dealing with. These iron ions are heavy, much heavier than the hydrogen protons produced by solar flares from our sun, and blasted out of supernovae. They are so big and powerful, in fact, that they can bust through conventional shields. To protect yourself you’d need a six foot wall of lead or concrete.

(In case you’re wondering why we don’t have problems with this type of radiation here on Earth, you have the planet’s magnetic field to thank.)

There are, of course, limits to what this experiment can tell us. According to the study, the mice were given all the radiation in one dose. It’s unknown how a low, chronic dose of galactic cosmic radiation will effect actual human beings. In addition, it’s unlikely that all astronauts will have Alzheimer’s in their genetic background. So the study is illuminating, but not the be-all end-all of research into the effects of cosmic rays on these 21st century explorers.

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Image credit: NASA

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79 comments

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11:56PM PDT on May 19, 2013

as long as we are a species that do these kind of experiments with animals, with no sensibilty whatsoever, we just don't deserve to go to space. we'll never move forward if we are such a stupid and insensible race.
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8:22AM PST on Jan 15, 2013

Never ever wanted to go into space travel, I feel a little safer on planet earth. Why would I even think about it. Maybe when I die my soul will disappear into space and might get lost, a horrible thought. But where does afterlife lead us?

8:28AM PST on Jan 12, 2013

Thank you Mindy, for Sharing this!

8:55AM PST on Jan 8, 2013

space travel is all well and good if it does no harm but we need to fix ourselves here on Mother Earth first!

10:14PM PST on Jan 7, 2013

A recent study led by neurobiologist Dr. M. Kerry O'Banion of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York has found that the rotting ozone layer and the development of commercialized spaceflight may present a new issue to mankind. Everyone is talking about it. Some are aghast and some do not believe on it. Can space radiation really trigger Alzheimer's disease in astronauts? I'm in the middle of believing on it or I am not.

12:52AM PST on Jan 7, 2013

quite frankly I have no desire to travel in space, besides as Dave C. stated there is plenty of things here on earth to mess with our minds.

8:12PM PST on Jan 6, 2013

as long as we are a species that do these kind of experiments with animals, with no sensibilty whatsoever, we just don't deserve to go to space. we'll never move forward if we are such a stupid and insensible race.

4:36PM PST on Jan 6, 2013

I dont believe we as a species need to be concerned about deep space messing with our brains as we already have a serious problem of the FDA , monsanto and their big Pharmaceutical mates already messing with our brains. Why do we have to have so many diversionary posts on this forum, I believe its to encourage us to think outside of the square and see the truth. Thanks for this post .

12:46PM PST on Jan 6, 2013

Thanks, I don't think any of us have to worry about the effects of deep space travel anytime soon.
I agree Sheila L., we need to be good stewards of our little rock before we can explore the great beyond.Sheila L.

I'm more concerned with the safety of our food supply. Thanks Obama for not only not keeping your promise to label GMO but for appointing a Monsanto VP to run the FDA. That's change we can believe in.

2:20AM PST on Jan 6, 2013

Chloe B. I agree with you 100%. More innocent little beasts subjected to pointless experiments that tell us nothing. The experiments did not, and could not, reproduce the experience of astronauts, and even if they could, mice are not people. When will these outdated, useless, taxpayer-funded animal experiments ever end?

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