NASA Grant Will Explore Impact of Space Travel on the Brain

Nov. 12, 2015

MarsKerry O'Banion, M.D., Ph.D., has been awarded $1.8 million from NASA to study whether extended deep space travel places astronauts at risk for neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The grant is one of nine announced by NASA that will fund research that employ beams of high-energy, heavy ions simulating space radiation. The studies will be conducted in part at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.   By colliding matter together at very high speeds, the accelerators at Brookhaven can reproduce the radioactive particles found in space. 

The studies will seek to better understand and reduce the risks to humans associated with long journeys in deep space, specifically focusing on neurological and cardiovascular diseases and cancer.  Understanding the potential health impact of space travel is a priority for NASA as it develops future plans for maned voyages to Mars and other destinations. 

The URMC study will build upon earlier work in this field.   In a study published in 2012, O’Banion – a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and the Del Monte Center for Neuromedicine – and his colleagues showed that exposure to a particular form of space radiation called high-mass, high-charged particles caused biological and cognitive changes in mice that indicated an accelerated risk for the development of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Read: Houston, We Have Another Problem: Study Shows that Space Travel is Harmful to the Brain

The new study builds off this research and will explore three possible cellular mechanisms linking radiation-induced neuroinflammation and a reduction in the clearance of amyloid beta – one of the hallmarks  of Alzheimer’s disease – from the brain.  The researchers will also investigate whether a drug that reduces brain inflammation can counteract the effects of space radiation.