24Nov2016

What Is Space Brain? Can Mars Astronauts Become the Victim?

Of all the objects in the universe, the human brain is the most complex:

Of all the objects in the universe, the human brain is the most complex:

Though NASA makes amazing discoveries every day, some have alarming implications for our future in space. As it turns out, “spacing out” in space is a long term problem. Megan Ray Nichols examines why.

Early tests with mice indicate that exposure to high energy particles can lead to “space brain”, or long term mental issues such as dementia. Of course, the high-energy particles simulate radiation in deep space.

Humans are not typically exposed to space radiation because of Earth’s atmosphere. Our magnetic field protects us from the majority of the cosmic radiation that’s bouncing around. The people on Earth who are exposed often have concentrated, high level exposure, which commonly results in radiation sickness. People in this group include those going through radiation therapy or are victims of nuclear bomb radiation. This isn’t the same as what we would expect to deal with in space.

Galactic cosmic rays consist of high energy protons, helium and other kinds of very excited nuclei. In our solar system, they’re generated by the sun. Other stars and quasars throughout the cosmos also produce cosmic radiation, so our universe is chock full of it. And this radiation is definitely one of the biggest obstacles to space travel.

Testing the Effects of Radiation                          

Since it’s not ethical to expose people to constant, low dosages of radiation, NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory in New York used mice. After 6 months of exposure to low dosages of radiation, the mice’s cognitive abilities had deteriorated. They suffered from diminished judgment, long-term neurological damage and cognitive impairment.

These results are in addition to what we already know about the risks of space radiation. Some of those include impaired immune systems and an increased risk of cancer. Astronauts are already taking on a hefty burden just by traveling to the International Space Station, let alone adding in more effects!

VOn top of being unethical to test on humans, cosmic rays are somewhat difficult to copy. Since we don’t live close to any exploding galaxies, scientists at NASA had to make their own. To do so, they used fully ionized oxygen and titanium particles. The mice demonstrated a change in cognitive function relatively quickly — in about 6 months. Although this is less than the shortest flight to Mars, which clocked in at about 4 months, it’s still too soon for comfort. Plus, that’s assuming the astronauts wouldn’t then have to come back!

Image result for Space Brain

The effects of exposure to highly charged and ionized particles during extended deep-space travel could be long-lasting and without resolve, similar to dementia.

Since they do, the least amount of time the astronauts would spend in space would be approximately 8 months. That’s just a flight out and back, with no time spent actually on the planet. If the goal is to visit the planet, then the astronauts will have to be out in space for a significantly longer period.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the study was that the mice could no longer experience fear extinction. This means that if they had a bad experience once, like being burned, they would not grow less reactive by repeated exposure to the stimulus — fire — without incident.

Most people and animals would, which enables them to learn to interact safely with potentially dangerous situations. If cosmic radiation eliminates that learning potential, it could drastically increase stress levels for the rest of their lives.

What These Findings Mean

Overall, this just means that the effects of long-term exposure to cosmic radiation require additional study. This isn’t the first study done on long term cosmic radiation, and so far, the results aren’t promising. But it doesn’t mean we should give up just yet.

Earth does have a magnetic field that protects the inhabitants from cosmic radiation, but Mars doesn’t. MARIE, or Mars Radiation Experiment, spent its entire mission measuring radiation levels on the way out to Mars and then in orbit around the planet. Because there is no protection from the radiation on Mars, we either have to find a way to protect ourselves from it completely, or alter ourselves to withstand it.

No matter what we choose, protecting our astronauts is a first priority. NASA is considering extending their health and life insurance policies to last a lifetime. More than that, however, if we are to reach Mars by 2030, as President Obama promised, we need to know what form the protection will take. Radiation is one of the biggest unknowns to discover, and understanding it is vital.

Although this discovery may be cause for caution, it isn’t the end of space exploration. It’s just another hurdle for humanity, which certainly hasn’t stopped us in the past.

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