Does Deep Space Travel Cause Alzheimer’s?

A new study indicates that the levels of radiation astronauts would experience over the course of a deep space mission could lead to dementia

radiation astronauts
The levels of radiation astronauts experience over the course of an extended mission in deep space could lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Image via NASA

NASA has big plans for manned travel in deep space. Although missions haven’t been officially announced yet, experts speculate that the agency plans to establish a space station on the far side of the moon sometime in the next decade, a stepping stone towards landing on an asteroid in 2025 and potentially trying to reach Mars sometime around 2033.

Getting to Mars, though, would require astronauts to endure a round-trip (or possibly one-way) journey that could be as long as three years—which could be particularly worrisome given the results of a study on the health effects of cosmic radiation published today in PLOS ONE. Although we’ve known for some time that the radiation experienced by space travelers could pose problems over the long term, this new study is the first to establish a link with an increased chance of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The researchers, a group from NASA and the University of Rochester, came to the finding by testing a specific type of cosmic radiation—high-mass, high-charged (HZE) iron particles—on mice. This kind of radiation is of particular concern, because its high speed (a result of the force of the exploding stars it’s originally expelled from, light-years away) and large mass mean that it’s tricky to protect against.

Here on Earth, we’re largely protected from it and other types of radiation by our planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field, but even a short time in deep space means much higher levels of exposure, and we haven’t yet figured out how to construct a shield that effectively blocks it. ”Because iron particles pack a bigger wallop it is extremely difficult from an engineering perspective to effectively shield against them,” M. Kerry O’Banion, the paper’s senior author, said in a statement. “One would have to essentially wrap a spacecraft in a six-foot block of lead or concrete.”

After producing radioactive particles that generate this type of radiation using a particle accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, the researchers exposed the mice to varying doses of the radiation, including levels comprable to what astronauts would experience on a mission to Mars. The breed of mice they used has been the subject of numerous studies on dementia and Alzheimer’s, so scientists have a relatively good understanding of how rapidly the disease and related symptoms develop over time.

But when the researchers put the mice through a series of behavioral tests—seeing if they were capable of remembering objects or specific locations—those that had been exposed to greater levels of radiation were far more likely to fail, demonstrating signs of neurological impairment far more early in life than is typical in the breed. Additionally, autopsies of these mice revealed that their brains contained higher levels of beta amyloid, the “plaque” considered a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

This result doesn’t mean we have to abandon dreams of deep space travel—or even that this kind of radiation definitively leads to accelerated neurological degeneration—but it does show that cosmic radiation is going to be a graver concern the longer space missions get. Ingenious engineering has addressed many of the difficulties of space flight, but this remains a problem to be solved.

“These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” O’Banion said. “This is yet another factor that NASA, which is clearly concerned about the health risks to its astronauts, will need to take into account as it plans future missions.”

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