Radiation exposure puts astronauts at risk of cognitive impairment: Study
Scientists have claimed that rats exposed to high-energy particles, simulating conditions that astronauts would face on a long-term deep space mission, show lapses in attention and slower reaction times, even when the radiation exposure is extremely low.
When astronauts are outside of the Earth's magnetic field, spaceships provide only limited shielding from radiation exposure, explains study leader Robert D. Hienz, Ph.D., an associate professor of behavioral biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
But not everyone will be affected the same way, his experiments suggest. "In our radiated rats, we found that 40 to 45 percent had these attention-related deficits, while the rest were seemingly unaffected," Hienz says. "If the same proves true in humans and we can identify those more susceptible to radiation's effects before they are harmfully exposed, we may be able to mitigate the damage."
To conduct the new study, rats were first trained for the tests and then taken to Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in Upton, N.Y., where a collider produces the high-energy proton and heavy ion radiation particles that normally occur in space. The rats' heads were exposed to varying levels of radiation that astronauts would normally receive during long-duration missions, while other rats were given sham exposures.
Once the rats returned to Johns Hopkins, they were tested every day for 250 days. The radiation-sensitive animals (19 of 46) all showed evidence of impairment that began at 50 to 60 days post-exposure and remained through the end of the study.
Lapses in attention occurred in 64 percent of the sensitive animals, elevations in impulsive responding occurred in 45 percent and slower reaction times occurred in 27 percent. The impairments were not dependent on radiation dose. Additionally, some of the rats didn't recover at all from their deficits over time, while others showed some recovery over time.
The study has been described in the journal Radiation Research.
(Posted on 24-04-2014)