Radiation Could Cause Memory and Learning Problems on Mars Mission

Tuesday, 06 August 2019 - 10:19AM
Mars
Tuesday, 06 August 2019 - 10:19AM
Radiation Could Cause Memory and Learning Problems on Mars Mission
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NASA
While the greater motor physical changes associated with low-gravity in space are relatively well-known, scientists are now learning that radiation in deep space may pose a bigger threat than previously thought. A NASA-funded paper published in the journal eNeuro yesterday raises new concerns surrounding the effects of chronic, low-dose radiation: the kind that astronauts would be exposed to during the seven months it would take to journey from Earth to Mars. 


Using mice as test subjects, the researchers found that "realistic, low dose rate exposures produce serious neurocognitive complications associated with impaired neurotransmission," which included "diminished hippocampal neuronal excitability and disrupted hippocampal and cortical long-term potentiation." In lay terms, these neurological effects manifested themselves as "severe impairments in learning and memory, and the emergence of distress behaviors." In short, the mice exhibited signs of having their ability to learn and remember substantially disrupted. Moreover, they exhibited significant anxiety: not a great mental space to be in as you're propelled through millions of miles of vast, empty space in a metal tube.


The authors of the paper pulled no punches as to the implications of their findings, plainly stating that their research shows the "significant adverse consequences of space relevant radiation dose rates on the brain, and points to the heightened risks associated with NASA's upcoming plans for travel to Mars." Following a 2017 mandate from President Trump to get Americans to Mars by 2033, the agency revealed a multi-phase plan for deep space and Martian exploration shortly after, later doubling down with a claim that they'd have humans on the red planet within the next 25 years. 


2018's Mars Mania wasn't limited to NASA. Following Elon Musk's Tesla-Roadster-In-Space stunt which saw his personal vehicle being blasted on a trajectory that would put it in orbit around Mars, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg was quick to chime in with his own vision of Martian exploration. "I certainly anticipate that we're going to put the first person on Mars during my lifetime, and I'm hopeful that we'll do it in the next decade. And I'm convinced that the first person that gets to Mars is going to get there on a Boeing rocket."


Not everyone is so bullish on Martian plans. Ever the skeptic, Bill Nye criticized talk of colonizing Mars, noting the planet's general inability to sustain human – and likely other – life. "Nobody's gonna go settle on Mars to raise a family and have generations of Martians. It's not reasonable because it's so cold. And there is hardly any water. There's absolutely no food, and the big thing, I just remind these guys, there's nothing to breathe." Retired astronaut Chris Hadfield took it a step further, saying that not only does NASA lack the means to take humans to Mars, so do private space companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX. 


Opening quote
"Personally, I don't think any of those three rockets is taking people to Mars. I don't think those are a practical way to send people to Mars because they're dangerous and it takes too long... My guess is we will never go to Mars with the engines that exist on any of those three rockets unless we truly have to."
Closing quote



Even with these new concerns demanding a deeper look into the effects of deep space radiation on human cognition, it's unlikely that it will slow the race to the red planet. Solutions will likely be developed – perhaps in the form of new types of resistant gear or even neuroprotective supplements to counteract the deleterious effects of radiation – just as solutions to muscular atrophy and other physical problems encountered in space were. When it comes to Mars, the question is no longer "if," but "when?" and "how?"






Science
NASA
Mars