Space travel and the brain: URMC Researchers aim to understand its effects on function

Nov. 30, 2020

Image of Mars courtesy of NASAM. Kerry O’Banion, M.D., Ph.D. has been awarded $1.8 million from NASA to explore the effect space travel has on the immune system and bone marrow, and how that impacts brain function.

The grant is one of 21 research proposals recently awarded by NASA to help answer questions about astronaut health and performance during future long-duration missions, including crewed missions to the Moon and Mars.

Using simulated space radiation produced by particle accelerators at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, O’Banion and his team will examine tissue and cellular changes in genes, blood flow, and immune cell function in mice. Behavioral tests and computer-assisted imaging will also be used to quantify damage and inflammation in the brain. 

O’Banion – Professor of Neuroscience and Neurology in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience – and colleagues previously worked with NASA on a study that showed exposure to a particular form of space radiation called high-mass, high-charged particles caused biological and cognitive changes in mice suggesting an accelerated risk for the Image of cells Colors: Green = labelled neurons, blue = cell nuclei, magenta = microgliadevelopment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This time around, O’Banion will be working with Laura Calvi, M.D., an endocrinologist and co-director of the UR Multidisciplinary Neuroendocrinology Clinic. Her preliminary data found space radiation changes in bone marrow suggestive of a skewed phenotype, in which white blood cells are changed into a more inflammatory phenotype. Similar changes are found with aging. “This helps to bind a common hypothesis about dysfunction and degeneration in multiple systems, with the bone marrow communicating to the brain through the vasculature,” O’Banion said.

“We have shown in the past that reversing micro environmental changes can mitigate and decrease transformation of stem cells into leukemia,” said Calvi. “That’s really the motivations for pursuing this investigation in the setting of cosmic radiation.”

Whether these changes cause changes in behavior is another question O’Banion, Calvi, and colleagues will seek to answer. “It’s known that radiation reduces neural synapses which likely impacts cognition – but whether this effect depends on changes outside of the brain is unknown.” Understanding these mechanisms may help NASA develop countermeasures to protect or lessen astronauts’ risk to space radiation exposure.

“I think as the scientist, space exploration really represents the ultimate frontier. I'm super excited to be able to participate in this and maybe try to lower some thresholds that will allow humanity to do space travel,” Calvi said. “This type of research has so many implications, even for us on Earth.”