January 02, 2013, 1:33 PM —
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Maybe when Elon Musk's SpaceX gets around to shipping people off to Mars in 15 years or so to start a colony of Earthlings, this problem will have been solved. But until then prospective space travelers with a half-million dollars to burn might want to read the fine print about the potential downside of their excellent adventure into deep space.
A new study by brain researchers at the University of Rochester (in conjunction with NASA, which funded the research) shows that prolonged exposure to cosmic radiation may cause the premature development of Alzheimer's disease in space travelers.
"Galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts," Dr. M. Kerry O'Banion, a professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and senior author of the study, said in a statement. "The possibility that radiation exposure in space may give rise to health problems such as cancer has long been recognized. However, this study shows for the first time that exposure to radiation levels equivalent to a mission to Mars could produce cognitive problems and speed up changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer's disease."
The study was published Monday in the online journal Plos One.
Researchers bombarded lab mice with Fe particles, an element in galactic cosmic radiation. After being exposed to the radiation, the mice were tested for memory. The team of scientists concluded that Fe particles -- which basically permeate deep space -- "can cause cognitive impairment" and enhance "pathological processes associated with progression of Alzheimer's Disease."
This is, of course, on top of the increased risk if cancer from being exposed to deep-space radiation, as Dr. O'Banion points out. And the physiological problems caused by weightlessness. And the unknown (but likely) psychological challenges of traveling for months in a relatively tiny and definitely fragile spacecraft.
“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.”
So should all the private space companies and their eager, well-heeled volunteer astronauts.
As I've written before, we have numerous formidable challenges to overcome before humans can even think of traveling into deep space. I want to see us get there as much as anybody, but right now and for the foreseeable future it doesn't strike me as remotely realistic. And even if I had an extra $500,000 lying around (which I don't), I wouldn't spend it on a potentially suicidal space jaunt.
How about any readers? If someone gave you a free ticket for a SpaceX flight to Mars in 10 or 15 years, would you take it knowing what we know now? Or maybe I should rephrase that: Would you take the trip not knowing about the physical and psychological impact? Let us know in the comments section below.