News out of the University of Rochester this week that a research paper, printed in PLOS ONE, will show evidence that certain types of cosmic radiation may speed the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in astronauts. Research was done at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratories and analyzed by researchers at the U of R.

The findings hinge on research done by exposing mice to radiation at levels scientists predict are similar to that encountered in space, where our fragile eggshell minds must survive without Earth’s natural radiation shield. The research focused on high-mass radiation particles like iron, as shielding astronauts from such particles poses significant engineering problems. Basically, we can’t right now. And if we’re going to put humans into space for the anticipated three-year journey to Mars, we’re probably going to want to work on that:

The brains of the mice also showed signs of vascular alterations and a greater than normal accumulation of beta amyloid, the protein “plaque” that accumulates in the brain and is one of the hallmarks of [Alzheimer’s] disease.

“These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” said O’Banion. “This is yet another factor that NASA, which is clearly concerned about the health risks to its astronauts, will need to take into account as it plans future missions.”

Mind you: even without any ill effects to your noggin, low-level, constant bombardment by radiation for the next three years would certainly take its toll. The threat of Alzheimer’s is just one more bit of the puzzle, and one that may need to be addressed.

The article leaves me wondering, though. How do they know that the plaque buildup is irreversible? Other studies at the U of R have shown that the loss of “white matter” in the brain, which is essentially the repair and maintenance crew, also may lead to Alzheimer’s. If the white matter stays intact and the plaque build up occurs, might the brain’s natural defenses right the wrongs done by space travel?

I’ve got a call in to see if I can get some clarification on all this. I’ll report back when I find out.