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Going to space can make astronaut’s brain spacey

Internation Space Station, here we come
Internation Space Station, here we come
Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA

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.

Going to ISS
Going to ISS NASA/Getty Images

Going to ISS

The countries represented by the flags displayed in this picture work together to man the International Space Station (ISS). Too bad we can't get along as well on Earth as we can on the space station - perhaps it's because they have nowhere else to go!

Say what?
Say what? Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

Say what?

A call from home, perhaps, or from a parent/brother/sister/friend. Either way, this call has obviously made this particular astronaut very happy. Can you imagine what the long distance rates are from earth to the International Space Station?

Parachuting home
Parachuting home Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

Parachuting home

Contrary to popular belief, an astronaut did not get upset and decide to bail out of the International Space Station. This is one of the visiting space shuttles returning to earth after taking supplies to those living at the ISS at the time.

All Aboard ...
All Aboard ... Bill Ingalls/Getty Images

All Aboard ...

This set of astronauts are about to board a space shuttle which will take them to the International Space Station where they will spend a substantial amount of time. They should not be physiologically affected due to the Space Station's proximity to the Earth's magnetic field.

Working outside the station
Working outside the station NASA/Getty Images

Working outside the station

Even in outer space, things sometimes have to be fixed. It is when astronauts have to "take a walk on the outside" that they may become susceptible to physiological damage from radiation. Of course, not all persons are affected the same, thus not everyone will be adversely affected.

Space Shuttle
Space Shuttle Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

Space Shuttle

It is amazing that something relatively so small is capable of taking people into outer space, docking into the International Space Station, allow astronauts to switch out (if necessary), and then return to earth. What an amazing achievement!

Got to get this thing fixed
Got to get this thing fixed NASA/Getty Images

Got to get this thing fixed

I've not seen the movie "Gravity" yet; but I always think, when I see astronauts working outside the International Space Station or any space vehicle, about how horrible it would be if one of them ever were to be disconnected from the tether that keeps them safe.

Let me help you with that
Let me help you with that NASA/Getty Images

Let me help you with that

It appears these two may be preparing to go outside their vehicle to either do a science experiment or to tweak something that may not be working properly. Either way, there is no guarantee that either, or both, of their brains will be adversely affected physiologically.