Neuroscientists Say This Drug May Be the Secret to Curing the Effect Space Has on Memory
NASA has been dealing with fears over 'space madness' for decades, but in all those years, there have been a grand total of zero "freak-outs or psychotic breaks" in astronaut crews. It turns out, however, that potential mental breakdowns may not end up being caused by claustrophobia or paranoid thoughts—cosmic radiation may be enough to mess with astronaut's heads, especially when it comes to memory loss.
Experts are now worried that cosmic radiation memory loss could be the real problem in exploring Mars and beyond in the future.
According to Susanna Rosi, the Director of Neurocognitive Research At the UCSF Brain and Spinal Injury Center, "We are starting to have evidence that exposure to deep space radiation might affect brain function over the long term."
Rosi and her team performed a four-year study (funded by NASA)—the first of its kind in history—to examine the potential effects of deep-space radiation on the brains of astronauts and found that it could lead to widespread inflammation, the breakdown of the brain's immune system, and damage to synapses, which allow for the transportation of information.
On the whole, exposure to radiation seems to cause effects similar to Alzheimer's.
Luckily, the research also offered a solution: the drug PLX5622, produced by the pharmaceutical company Plexxikon.
When irradiated mice were treated with the drug, researchers found that they displayed no negative memory effects from the radiation—the mice responded well to memory tests, and their brains displayed little of the damage present in non-treated mice.
This is apparently because PLX5622 forces the brain to flush out its irradiated microglia (cells in the brain that acts as its immune system) and create new ones.
According to Rosi: "This is really neat evidence, first that rebooting the brain's microglia can protect cognitive function following radiation exposure, and second that we don't necessarily need to treat immediately following the radiation exposure for the drug to be effective."
Hopefully, the drug proves to be just as effective on humans—no one wants to wake up on a space station with no memory of who they are, like Sam Bell in Moon.