Updated 9:12 AM EST, Tue, Jan 05, 2021

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Deep Space Travel Can Cause Brain Damage; Threatens Mars Missions

Space selfie

(Photo : NASA) ISS commander Butch Wilmore snaps a selfie during a spacewalk last Saturday.

A new study reports that astronauts could incur brain damage when exposed to cosmic rays during travels to deep space, posing concerns on the upcoming manned Mars missions.

"There is now cause for concern that cosmic rays can lead to cognitive deficiencies, and this effect is likely to occur in humans as well as rodents," University of California neuroscientist and radiation oncologist Charles Limoli said.

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Cosmic rays are extremely fast and huge charged particles radiated from every direction by exploding stars or supernova. They can penetrate not just space crafts, but also human skulls.

While adult brains are more resistant to radiation like Gamma-rays and X-rays than other body parts like the bone marrow that is continuously dividing, they are not known to withstand galactic cosmic rays.

NASA's Mars spaceflight missions loom near so scientists want to understand its likely effects to the human brain after exposure.

For the experiment, they exposed mice to radiation by bombarding them with electrically charged particles found in cosmic rays. These particles were accelerated to about two-thirds the speed of light.

Six weeks later, the rodents showed fewer brain dendrites or nerves carrying the brain's electric signals, an observation which Limoli described as "extensive degradation" in the brain. After all, dendrite loss is linked to Alzheimer's disease and other brain diseases.

Affected mice showed curiosity and confusion on objects placed on a familiar setting. In contrast, the irradiated ones showed lack of concern in the same setting.

Astronauts are projected to travel to and from Mars in a total of three years, which is long enough for cosmic radiation-related problems to manifest. They could develop brain damage that could compromise the mission.

Scientists are working to address the problem because astronauts' minds should be able to perform at their best during the missions, Limoli said.

"NASA is funding research from myself and others to try to develop compounds that can alleviate the effects of radiation on the brain," the lead author added.

Cosmic rays do not reach the Earth's surface because its magnetosphere acts as a barrier. It is the reason life on Earth is present.

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