Cosmic rays impair astronaut brain function

I really miss writing about science. And, of course, you probably have figured out I’m into science fiction. I once had an idea to create a website called “Sci for Sci Fi” that would cover current science research and propose ways that research could inform readers’ SF writing. Although that project never got off the ground, I’ve decided to go ahead write about research with an eye for how it can inspire fiction on this blog. This post is my first stab in that direction.

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When you travel to Mars using current technology, you are exposed to quite a bit of cosmic radiation. A recent study by Charles Limoli and his colleagues found that this exposure causes significant damage to the central nervous system, leading to dementia-like mental impairments.

“Performance decrements, memory deficits, and loss of awareness and focus during spaceflight may affect mission-critical activities,” said Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology in University of California Irivine’s School of Medicine, “and exposure to these particles may have long-term adverse consequences to cognition throughout life.”

Well, I say, that doesn’t bode well. Can you imagine the implications for Mars colonization if once you get there you start forgetting things … little things, large things, important things? Why send our best and brightest to the Red Planet if they’re only going to be less than that by the time they get there?

Now, you might be saying, we’ve had people working up in the International Space Station (ISS), for years. They’ve been exposed to cosmic rays. Why haven’t we noticed this in our astronauts before?

Well, for one, people working for extended periods on the ISS do not face the same level of bombardment with galactic cosmic rays as astronauts on a mission to Mars would, since they are still within the protective magnetosphere of the Earth. For another, a trip to Mars would take two to three years and most stays on the ISS are less than that. In fact, Sergei Krikalev, who holds the record for most time in space, did not achieve that record in one mission. His 2.2 years in space spanned six spaceflights on Soyuz, the Space Shuttle, Mir and the ISS. This research doesn’t address whether the damage requires continuous exposure or if serialized exposure would have the same effect.

Limoli does have some suggestions for mitigating the effects of the cosmic radiation. He suggests that spacecraft could be designed to include areas of increased shielding, such as those used for rest and sleep. However, no matter the shielding, these highly energetic particles will traverse the ship and, he noted, “there is really no escaping them.”

Another idea is the development of drugs that will lesson or reverse the damage. “We are working on pharmacologic strategies involving compounds that scavenge free radicals and protect neurotransmission,” Limoli said. “But these remain to be optimized and are under development.”

This research is part of NASA’s Human Research Program. Investigating how space radiation affects astronauts and learning ways to mitigate those effects are critical to further human exploration of space, and NASA needs to consider these risks as it plans for missions to Mars and beyond.

Writing Prompts

What if …

  • The first pioneers on Mars suffered from severe dementia? How would they cope? Would they be impaired enough to threaten their own survival? How do we on Earth react?
  • We developed drugs for space missions that effectively protected us (and our brains) from cosmic rays? Would they have other uses here on Earth? Might they help us live longer, thus contributing to over-population? Or would they have a side effect that made them highly addictive when used on someone not exposed to cosmic rays?
  • Dementia set in before astronauts arrived at Mars? How might the “performance decrements, memory deficits, and loss of awareness and focus” affect the mission? Would they even make it to Mars at all?

The writing prompts in this post are provided for your use and thought experimental pleasure. Feel free to create (and publish) your own stories inspired by them.

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