Prolonged Exposure to Cosmic Radiation Could Increase Risks of Alzheimer’s
In a good example of just how many environmental factors may influence the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) funded study suggests that prolonged exposure to cosmic radiation could affect the future health of astronauts. It also shows how much research into neurodegenerative diseases is going on that will, in the end, contribute to the treatment and cure for diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The health risks involved in space travel have already shown there are potential cancer, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal risks from galactic cosmic radiation. This study, one of a number that NASA has funded over the last 25 years, is the first to look at neurodegenerative changes that could potentially happen when humans begin to explore planets in our solar system involving long flights. Because of their genetic similarity to humans this study used mice to evaluate the probable effects of cosmic radiation on humans.
Laboratory mice were exposed to various doses of radiation, including levels comparable to those astronauts would experience during a mission to Mars. The researchers evaluated the cognitive and biological impact of the exposure through a series of experiments in which the mice had to recall objects or specific locations. They found that mice exposed to radiation were far more likely to fail the tasks, thus suggesting neurological impairments.
Researchers also found that the brains of the mice showed signs of vascular alterations and a greater than normal accumulation of beta amyloid in the brain. Beta amyloid is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease..
The exact causes of Alzheimer’s have yet to be determined. Toxins and pollutants have been suggested as contributing to, or even causing, Alzheimer’s. This research is just one way of demonstrating the complexity of finding causes. NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars in 2035, let us hope by that time that we have more effective medications available to help us prevent and treat this life changing disease.
Jonathan D. Cherry, Bin Liu, Jeffrey L. Frost, Cynthia A. Lemere, Jacqueline P. Williams, John A. Olschowka, M. Kerry O’Banion. Galactic Cosmic Radiation Leads to Cognitive Impairment and Increased Aβ Plaque Accumulation in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (12): e53275 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053275