Could Mars voyage cause Alzheimer's in astronauts?

Research into space radiation exposure suggests new risk to long-distance astronauts -- symptoms of dementia.

Robots may still be our best bet for Mars missions.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

My brother has told me that if a manned Mars mission were seeking volunteers, he'd be the first in line, even if it meant never coming back. I wouldn't want him to go, but my desire to keep him Earth-bound is even more intense after checking out a new study on the impact of radiation on potential manned Mars missions.

A study published in PLOS One looks at the effects of galactic cosmic radiation on mice. Researchers exposed the mice to particle irradiation like that found in space. The result was cognitive impairment in line with the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

The study's lead author is Dr. M. Kerry O'Banion, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Researchers exposed 29 male mice and 20 female mice to controlled doses of radiation at NASA's Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The mice were monitored for the next 3.5 months for the females and 6 months for the males. During this time, they underwent behavioral and memory testing, which showed a decrease in the mice's cognitive abilities.

"The doses used in this study are comparable to those astronauts will see on a mission to Mars, raising concerns about a heightened chance of debilitating dementia occurring long after the mission is over," the study states.

We may be a far cry away from sending people to Mars, but this study adds one more potential wrinkle to the many challenges ahead. It also lends some credence to those sci-fi stories about people going crazy in space. It could even explain why "Prometheus" was such a trainwreck. It wasn't the script, it was the space dementia.