Cosmic Radiation Could Cause Alzheimer's in Mars Astronauts

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For the study, researchers used mice that had been engineered to have two human gene mutations associated with familial Alzheimer's.

"Essentially, they were healthy mice with nasty genes," said O'Banion. Under natural conditions, mice do not get the disease.

The mice were exposed to the radiation for several minutes. Six months later, researchers evaluated the exposure to see if it had any effect.

"A minute or two [of exposure] is like three years in human life," O'Banion said. "It's apples and oranges, a very different kind of exposure, but the total dose is equivalent to what an astronaut would receive [on a three-year Mars mission]."

Cosmic radiation is unlike anything on earth, according to O'Banion, similar only to what might be experienced in a nuclear accident.

"The big problem NASA faces is that shielding is not effective, and a spacecraft is not bulky enough to protect them over long periods of travel," said O'Banion. "At least not now. In scenarios I have heard of sending people to Mars, they would then build an underground shelter on a long-term mission in order to protect them from radiation."

While the research does not solve the problem of radiation in space or explain why humans develop Alzheimer's disease, it is important, according to O'Banion.

"My own bias is this," he said. "It's just another example of how the environment can influence diseases. The mice had a genetic predisposition and you have added an environmental injury -- an insult to their system. And now they show exacerbation of the disease."

There may even be parallels with the development of the disease after brain injuries in football players, he said.

Jeff Chancellor, a scientist in radiation physics at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, said the Rochester team's study is solid.

"I know most of the authors and they are very well respected, and I have full confidence in their results," he said. . "The main benefit of their research is being able to further enhance the field and perhaps provide justification for more research."

"Any time you identify a mechanism for how a disease or a condition is induced, you further the ability to mitigate it," he said. "It provides more tools for the researchers and for M.D.s ... There are great benefits to all these studies."

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