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Deep-Space Radiation May Trigger Alzheimer’s

January 2, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Neuroradiology
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At least one type of deep-space radiation may accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research results published on the last day of 2012 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

That has serious implications for NASA’s planned human missions to an asteroid (by 2025) and then to Mars. M. Kerry O’Banion, MD, PhD, senior author of the new study, said:

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.

Dr. O’Banion is a professor in the neurobiology and anatomy department at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. He was quoted in a medical center news release.

The researchers focused on high-mass, high-charged particles—specifically, iron particles. The combination of mass and speed allows them to penetrate conventional spacecraft shielding. “Because iron particles pack a bigger wallop, it is extremely difficult from an engineering perspective to effectively shield against them,” Dr. O’Banion said. “One would have to essentially wrap a spacecraft in a six-foot block of lead or concrete.”

Mice exposed to iron-particle radiation developed cognitive problems. Their brains also showed signs of changes that precede Alzheimer’s. “The doses used in this study are comparable to those astronauts will see on a mission to Mars,” the PLOS ONE article says, “raising concerns about a heightened chance of debilitating dementia occurring long after the mission is over.”

The article follows the release last month of a National Research Council study concluding that NASA “is at a transitional point.” “Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars,” the study says, “there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program.”

Even the Mars mission “has never received sufficient funding to advance beyond the rhetoric stage. Such a mission would be very expensive and hazardous, which are the primary reasons that such a goal has not been actively pursued.”

The new radiation study doesn’t exactly boost the momentum for Mars.

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Meanwhile, a bill supporting domestic production of medical isotopes, which had been stuck in legislative limbo for more than a year, suddenly made it through Congress at the end of 2012. We explain how on our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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