New research from Johns Hopkins indicates that long-term deep space missions can mess with astronauts on a physiological level.
Specifically, the research finds that brain protein can be altered and reaction times lowered by the aforementioned-type missions. This conclusion was reached when researchers exposed rats to high-energy particles simulating conditions astronauts would experience in deep space, then ran them through a series of tasks mimicking the fitness assessments that are required of astronauts, pilots and soldiers.
Strange perhaps, but not necessarily surprising, was the finding by scientists that deep-space conditions don’t affect everyone in the same way. In fact, about half of the rats tested were completely unaffected. The others began showing symptoms about seven weeks later – once they appeared, they never disappeared. Some rats did, however, show improvement over time, thus raising the question of whether recovery is possible, given sufficient time.
An individual’s resilience after exposure to radiation seems to make the difference in how the brain is affected. Those astronauts who leave their space vehicles for space walks or other work are exposed to radiation from the sun’s subatomic particles, solar flares, cosmic rays, etc. Even a moon landing is subject to risk since the moon does not have the type of planet-wide magnetic field that protects us on Earth.
If these findings translate to humans, scientists are hopeful they will be able to identify a biological marker to help determine how an individual astronaut’s brain might respond to a deep-space mission before rocketing to the stars.
Catherine Davis, the study’s lead author says, “As with other areas of personalized medicine, we would seek to create individual treatment and prevention plans for astronauts we believe would be more susceptible to cognitive deficits from radiation exposure.”
Scientists says those astronauts stationed in space currently are less at-risk for the brain deficits revealed in the study because the International Space Station is near enough to the Earth’s magnetic field they are somewhat protected.