As if it was a scene taken straight out of a movie, the United States aims to put a man on Mars in the next two decades. Mars, at its closest point, is 33.9 million miles away, and animal research is showing that the long trip to the Red Planet could have health implications for astronauts and space travelers.
Using mouse models, researchers have found that exposure to cosmic rays, which are abundant in space, could lead to something dubbed “space brain.” Mice exposed to energetic, charged particles, similar to cosmic rays, developed conditions leading to mental impairment and dementia. They also showed decreased levels of “fear extinction,” the way in which the brain stifles traumatic associations. These decreased levels could make one more prone to anxiety which could become problematic on the three year trip to Mars.
Without the use of animal models, it would become almost impossible to test the effects of space travel on astronauts’ bodies. Author of the study and professor of radiation oncology at the University of California, Charles Limoli, explains, “Exposure to these particles can lead to a range of potential central nervous system complications that can occur during and persist long after actual space travel – such as various performance decrements, memory deficits, anxiety, depression, and impaired decision-making.” An astronaut’s job in space is so complicated that any decrease in performance can spell disaster for a whole mission.
Thankfully, with the use of animal models, it becomes easier to study the rigors of space travel. While the results from these studies are only an approximation to the effects of space on humans, it is a vital first step towards further exploration of outer space and ensuring the safety of our intrepid astronauts.
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