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US university to study underlying mechanisms of 'space brain' for NASA

18 March 2015

With $9 million in NASA funding, University of Californai at Irvine (UCI) professor of radiation oncology Charles Limoli will lead a national effort to understand the early and long-term effects of space radiation on the central nervous system.

Exposure to the dangerous radiation fields in space has been shown to impair the cognitive abilities of rodents, and this data suggests that astronauts who spend extended time in space may suffer similar consequences. Limoli's team will look into the behavioural impairments of rodents attributed to space radiation exposure and the underlying causes of these deficits, including studies to quantify the structural and functional alterations to nerve cells.

This ''space brain'' project is part of NASA's Human Research Program, which is funding three new NASA Specialized Centers of Research on space radiation. Investigating how such radiation affects astronauts and learning ways to mitigate those effects are critical to further human exploration of space, and NASA has set its sights on exploring an asteroid and, ultimately, Mars.

Collectively, the three NSCOR teams comprise 25 investigators from 13 institutions in eight states and the District of Columbia. Limoli's group includes researchers from UCI, Loma Linda University and the Eastern Virginia Medical School.

The radiation exposure studies will take place at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory, located at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

''The space environment poses unique hazards to astronauts, since a range of potential central nervous system complications can result during and after actual space travel,'' Limoli said. ''We plan to conduct a comprehensive series of rodent studies to characterise the neurobiological mechanisms involved with radiation-induced cognitive impairment.''

Results will inform efforts to minimise the effects of solar and galactic cosmic radiation on the central nervous system.

As a member of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCI, Limoli studies how cranial irradiation triggers DNA damage, oxidative stress and structural alterations to neurons issues important to not just astronauts but also patients subjected to radiotherapy for brain cancer. In addition, he has advanced preclinical research showing that stem cell treatments can limit cognitive deficits after cranial radiotherapy or systemic chemotherapy.

Fellow UCI investigators on the NASA project are Ivan Soltesz, professor and chair of anatomy and neurobiology; Munjal Acharya, assistant professor of radiation oncology; and Janet Baulch and Vipan Kumar, project scientists in Limoli's research group.

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