A new study has found that prolonged exposure to cosmic radiation could increase the risk of developing neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. The findings raise questions about the dangers associated with future manned missions to Mars.
But according to Dr. M. Kerry O'Banion and his research team at the University of Rochester Medical Center, astronauts of the future, those taking long journeys to Mars or the Asteroid Belt, may have have even more to worry about.
"In addition to the known risks that are already out in space including potential risks of cancer or other kinds of problems such as cataracts that have already been reported inradiation experiments like ours, there is also the potential that you could exacerbate neuro-degenerative disease," he said.
The researchers exposed lab mice to high levels of cosmic radiation, the amount an astronaut would be exposed to over the three years it would take to get to Mars, and then measured their cognitive ability. The mice failed cognitive tasks more regularly and began showing signs of Alzheimer's disease.
O'Banion says current spacecraft technology works well to protect against solarradiation, but it isn't designed to shield against increased levels of high mass, high charged, cosmic radiation found outside of Earth's orbit.
And while spacecraft can shield crew members from the radiation that can occur during a solar storm -- there is no way to block out the high-mass, high-charged (HZE) particles that O'Banion and his team studied.
"The galactic cosmic radiation that we studied in our paper is different. It has a very high velocity, high mass charged particles that arise in space apparently through Super Novas and other galactic events. These particles are very challenging to shield against with conventional materials. One needs large thickness' of water, concrete or lead. my understanding is that currently we don't have the technology to shield effectively in spacecraft against these events because we can't carry that much material," he said.
But a trip to Mars doesn't mean an inevitable case of Alzheimer's. O'Banion says researchers plan to look at how to mitigate the impact of radioactive particles.
"Reducing the amount of exposure, the length of time of exposure would be a good thing to do. But in terms of other kinds of things one might do I think supplements or other kinds of medications and so forth, I think that's an unanswered question that we're hoping to contribute to some time in the future."
Currently, NASA has plans for a manned mission to an asteroid in 2021 and a trip to Mars scheduled for 2035.