NASA Taps EVMS Researchers to Safeguard Mars-Bound Astronauts
Among the many obstacles to sending astronauts to Mars is determining how best to protect them from the radiation they would encounter on the way. “When it comes to travel in space, we have a lot of experience with low-earth orbit and moon travel, but not deep space,” says Richard A. Britten, PhD, associate professor of radiation oncology and biophysics.
As a radiation biologist, Dr. Britten has developed clinical applications in his work. Indeed, he is involved in a project to increase the efficacy of the radiation used in cancer treatment. But his talents also have attracted funding from NASA. He received his second grant from the space agency last year to examine the effects of galactic cosmic radiation on brain function.
Space radiation is so different from the radiation that exists on earth that our knowledge of terrestrial radiation cannot be applied to cosmic radiation. Dr. Britten’s research will help fill a gap in NASA’s understanding of how best to send humans to Mars.
Dr. Britten’s EVMS team, which includes O. John Semmes, PhD, professor of microbiology and molecular cell biology; Julius O. Nyalwidhe, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular cell biology; and Gyorgy Lonart, PhD, associate professor of pathology and anatomy, determined that even small doses of galactic cosmic radiation can interfere with cognitive tasks that require spatial memory and navigation.
In experiments, rats that had been exposed to radiation similar to that found in space — radiation that included large, heavily charged (Hze) particles — had difficulty completing a maze they were previously able to master.
“It seems as if they forget,” Dr. Britten says. “Then it seems as if they get confused. They look around in the same place over and over again.” With the $777,030 grant from NASA, Dr. Britten’s team hopes to identify precisely how radiation exposure disrupts normal neurocognitive function.
One hypothesis had been that cell death caused loss of memory and brain function, but this explanation has been discarded. Instead, it appears that the radiation interferes with the release of neuropeptides, or small molecules composed of amino acids, in the hippocampus region of the brain.
Dr. Britten is working to better understand this interruption to the normal functioning of the brain with a process called proteomics — the study of how proteins are expressed within cells. EVMS is a world leader in this field. Dr. Britten’s goal is to identify which proteins are affected by Hze radiation and how those changes disrupt neural transmission. This, in turn, will lead to a better understanding of the mechanics that underlie memory loss and malfunction.