As if space travel weren’t risky enough already, now astronauts have to grapple with the fear that being in deep space might fry their brains.
The radiation in space is similar to what might be experienced in a nuclear explosion, but here on Earth, we’re protected by our planet’s magnetic field. When astronauts leave Earth’s orbit, however, that layer of protection is gone, and human bodies are bombarded by radioactive particles, which have already been linked to increased cancer risk and cardiovascular issues. But “perhaps the greatest danger of such prolonged exposure,” says Alasdair Wilkins at io9, is “the degeneration of the brain itself.”
Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center wanted to study how prolonged time spent in deep space could affect astronauts. So they exposed mice to levels of radiation similar to what humans would encounter on a three-year round trip to Mars, then tested the mice’s memories. The results were startling. Mice exposed to radiation failed to recall objects and places, and their brains showed an increased buildup of beta amyloid, a protein considered one of the clearest indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. ”These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” says researcher M. Kerry O’Banion.
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