The space brain problem: will astronauts remember their journey to Mars?

A new study by scientists at the University of California, Irvine has raised concerns about a phenomenon called “space brain” – the fact that astronauts travelling to Mars could risk chronic dementia after being exposed to galactic cosmic rays.

Professor of radiation oncology Charles Limoli and his colleagues have found that exposure to highly energetic charged particles, much like those found in galactic cosmic rays, causes significant long-term brain damage in rodents. The exposure resulted in cognitive impairments, as well as dementia.

The study has been published today in Nature’s Scientific Reports, and follows another study last year that showed shorter-term brain effects from exposure to galactic cosmic rays.

“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two-to-three-year round trip to Mars,” Limoli said.

“The space environment poses unique hazards to astronauts. Exposure to these particles can lead to a range of potential central nervous system complications that can occur during and persist long after actual space travel – such as various performance decrements, memory deficits, anxiety, depression and impaired decision-making.

“Many of these adverse consequences to cognition may continue and progress throughout life.”

Image courtesy of NASA. Above: Image courtesy of NASA/Paul DiMare

The study, which was carried out at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory in New York, subjected rodents to charged particle irradiation. The rats were then sent to Limoli’s laboratory for analysis.

After six months of exposure, the scientists found significant levels of brain inflammation and damage to neurons. The brain’s neural network was impaired through the reduction of dendrites –short branched extensions of nerve cells, along which impulses received from other cells at synapses are transmitted to the cell body – and spines on those neurons, disrupting the transmission of signals among brain cells.

The radiation also affected “fear extinction” – a process in which the brain supresses prior unpleasant or stressful associations.

“Deficits in fear extinction could make you prone to anxiety, which could become problematic over the course of a three-year trip to and from Mars,” Limoli warned.

Images courtesy ofNASA. Featured image courtesy of NASA/Paul DiMare

Images courtesy of NASA. Featured image courtesy of NASA/Paul DiMare

Similar types of more severe cognitive dysfunction, which often results in poor performance on behavioural tasks designed to test learning and memory, are common in brain cancer patients who have received high-dose radiation treatments.

Although dementia-like deficits in astronauts would take months to appear, the time required for a mission to Mars is sufficient for these impairments to develop.

The study is part of NASA’s Human Research Program, which undertakes work to predict, assess and solve the problems that humans encounter in space. Investigating how space radiation affects astronauts is critical to future space exploration, and NASA must consider the risks as it plans for missions to Mars.

Partial solutions to the problem are being explored, such as designing spacecraft to include areas of increased shielding.

“But, realistically, the highly energetic charged particles will traverse the spacecraft regardless, “and there is really no escaping them,” Limoli warned.

Preventive treatments, however, could be more effective. The UCI team is currently working on pharmacological strategies involving compounds that scavenge free radicals and protect neurotransmission.

Wishing you a futuristic Christmas and a fantastic New Year from team Factor

Factor is taking a break for the Christmas season, but we’ll be returning in January for more futuristic news and features.

Until then, check out our stunning new digital magazine, which is free to read on any device for your future fix.

From the issues of today, to the future of tomorrow and beyond, there’s something for everyone, from flying cars and Richard Stallman on privacy to life in the 22nd century and the space colonies of the future human race. There’s even a look at the Christmas dinners of the future.

And if you’re still looking for presents, check out of bumper futuristic gift guide for ideas to suit every budget.

Merry Christmas, and see you in 2018!

FCC votes to repeal net neutrality rules

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the so-called net neutrality regulations that prohibited broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service on certain content. The FCC’s net neutrality rules were originally passed in 2015.

Doctors say Haemophilia A trial results are "mind-blowing"

Doctors say the results of a gene therapy trial into haemophilia A, whose suffers don't produce a protein needed to stop bleeding, are "mind-blowing". Thirteen patients given the gene therapy at Barts Health NHS Trust are now off treatment with 11 producing near-normal levels of the protein.

Source: BBC

Scientists use stem cells to make paralysed rat walk again

Scientists have used stem cells from an adult human's mouth to induce spinal cord regeneration in a rat. This effectively created a pathway circumventing the injured area so that instructions from the brain could reach the rest of the body, curing the animal that was previously totally paralysed.

NASA uses AI to find new exoplanet

Researchers have announced the discovery of an eighth planet orbiting the star Kepler-90. The discovery of Kepler 90i was made when researchers on the Kepler planet-hunting telescope teamed up with artificial intelligence specialists at Google to analyse data collected by the space-based observatory.

AI engine AlphaZero's win will "scramble" chess world

Having beaten the world's the highest-rated chess engine Stockfish, world champion chess player Viswanathan Anand believes the AI programme AlphaZero will change the way humans play the game. "We've got a clean start and the implications are very interesting," said Anand.

Source: ESPN

Following criticism, animal shelter fires security robot

A San Francisco animal adoption agency will immediately stop using a controversial security robot. The move comes after the San Francisco SPCA had been criticised for its deployment of a Knightscope K9 to mitigate vandalism and the presence of homeless people at its Mission District office.

Source: Ars Technica