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Radiation exposure alters the electrophysiological properties of neurons in the hippocampus. Credit Acharya et al., eNeuro 2019

Radiation exposure alters the electrophysiological properties of neurons in the hippocampus. Credit: Acharya et al., eNeuro 2019

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Exposure to chronic, low dose radiation — the conditions present in deep space — causes neural and behavioral impairments in mice, researchers report in eNeuro.

These results highlight the pressing need to develop safety measures to protect the brain from radiation during deep space missions as astronauts prepare to travel to Mars.

Radiation is known to disrupt signaling among other processes in the
brain. However, previous experiments used short-term, higher dose-rate
exposures of radiation, which does not accurately reflect the conditions
in space.

To investigate how deep space travel could affect the nervous
system, Charles Limoli and colleagues at the University of California,
Irvine, Stanford University, Colorado State University and the Eastern
Virginia School of Medicine exposed mice to chronic, low dose radiation
for six months. They found that the radiation exposure impaired cellular
signaling in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, resulting in
learning and memory impairments. They also observed increased anxiety
behaviors, indicating that the radiation also impacted the amygdala.

The researchers predict that during a deep space mission
approximately one in five astronauts would experience anxiety-like
behavior and one in three would experience certain levels of memory
impairments. Additionally, the astronauts may struggle with
decision-making.

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