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.

Steve “Woz” Wozniak to advise hologram emoji company that he calls “groundbreaking”

Apple’s co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak has found himself a new gig; Woz has joined the hologram emoji company, Mojiit, as an adviser.

In his role as advisor to Mojiit, the legendary entrepreneur and engineer will help assemble a world-class engineering team in addition to bringing investors and partnerships to the newly launched startup. Wozniak will also serve as mentor to Mojiit founder, Jeremy Greene.

“I’m thrilled to join Mojiit as an advisor,” said Wozniak. “Jeremy is a natural leader, the company is groundbreaking, it’s going to change the ecommerce space, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Created in 2017, Mojiit is the latest startup technology venture from Greene. The company’s tech essentially enables users to project and share 3D hologram emojis via smartphones.

The platform turns users into emojis by scanning their face, which can then be sent to loved ones and friends. Once a Mojiit message is received, it will map the area where it is received and place the Mojiit hologram there in real time, so it works in a similar way to Pokemon Go.

“Steve is one of the best and brilliant engineers in the entire world. But outside of that, he’s a wonderful man,” said Greene. “There isn’t anyone I’d want to be in business with more than this guy. He’s a legend. Who better to learn from than the guy who created the computer?”

Image courtesy of Nichollas Harrison. Featured image courtesy of Mojiit

In addition to consumer use, businesses of all kinds can tap into hologram emojis with Mojiit’s technology.

Mojiit investors already  include NFL alum Ed Reed, and the company was able to raise a total of $1 million in its seed round of funding.

Alongside the appointment of Woz, Entourage and Ballers producer Rob Weiss recently joined the company as a creative director.

“It’s exciting to expand beyond television and film to digital platforms,” said Weiss. “Hologram technology brings incredible opportunity to entertainment and media. I’m thrilled to be leading creative at Mojiit.”

Nanoengineers send antibiotic-delivering micromotors into the body to treat cancer-causing infection

Nanoengineers have demonstrated for the first time how “micromotors” that measure half the width of a human hair can be used to transport antibiotics through the body.

Nanoengineers at the University of California San Diego tested the micromotors in mice with Helicobacter pylori infections, which can also be found in about two-thirds of the world’s population and while many people will never notice any signs of its presence it can cause peptic ulcers and stomach cancer.

The mice received the micromotors – packed with a clinical dose of the antibiotic clarithromycin – orally once a day for five consecutive days.

Afterwards, nanoengineers evaluated the bacterial count in each mouse stomach and found that treatment with the micromotors was slightly more effective than when the same dose of antibiotic was given in combination with proton pump inhibitors, which also suppress gastric acid production.

Micromotors administered to the mice swam rapidly throughout the stomach while neutralising gastric acid, which can be destructive to orally administered drugs such as antibiotics and protein-based pharmaceuticals.

Because gastric acid is so destructive to traditional antibiotics drugs used to treat bacterial infections, ulcers and other diseases in the stomach are normally taken with additional substances, called proton pump inhibitors.

But when taken over longer periods or in high doses, proton pump inhibitors can cause adverse side effects including headaches, diarrhea and fatigue. In more serious cases, they can cause anxiety or depression.

The micromotors, however, have a built-in mechanism that neutralises gastric acid and effectively deliver their drug payloads in the stomach without requiring the use of proton pump inhibitors.

“It’s a one-step treatment with these micromotors, combining acid neutralisation with therapeutic action,” said Berta Esteban-Fernández de Ávila, a postdoctoral scholar in Wang’s research group at UC San Diego and a co-first author of the paper.

The nanoengineers say that while the present results are promising, this work is still at an early stage.

To test their work, the team is planning future studies to into the therapeutic performance of the micromotors in animals and humans, and will compare it with other standard therapies used to combat stomach diseases.

UC San Diego nanoengineers also plan to test different drug combinations with the micromotors to treat multiple diseases in the stomach or in different sections of the gastrointestinal tract.

Overall, the researchers say that this work opens the door to the use of synthetic motors as active delivery platforms in the treatment of diseases.

Image and video courtesy of the Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics at UC San Diego.