Exposure to galactic cosmic radiation is a potential health risk in long-term space travel and represents a significant risk to the central nervous system. The most harmful component of galactic cosmic radiation is the HZE [high mass, highly charged (Z), high energy] particles, e.g., 56Fe particle. In previous ground-based experiments, exposure to doses of HZE-particle radiation that an astronaut will receive on a deep space mission (i.e., ∼20 cGy) resulted in pronounced deficits in hippocampus-dependent learning and memory in rodents. Neurocognitive tasks that are dependent upon other regions of the brain, such as the striatum, are also impaired after exposure to low HZE-particle doses. These data raise the possibility that neurocognitive tasks regulated by the prefrontal cortex could also be impaired after exposure to mission relevant HZE-particle doses, which may prevent astronauts from performing complex executive functions. To assess the effects of mission relevant (20 cGy) doses of 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles on executive function, male Wistar rats received either sham treatment or were irradiated and tested 3 months later for their ability to perform attentional set shifting. Compared to the controls, rats that received 20 cGy of 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles showed significant impairments in their ability to complete the attentional set-shifting test, with only 17% of irradiated rats completing all stages as opposed to 78% of the control rats. The majority of failures (60%) occurred at the first reversal stage, and half of the remaining animals failed at the extra-dimensional shift phase of the studies. The irradiated rats that managed to complete the tasks did so with approximately the same ease as did the control rats. These observations suggest that exposure to mission relevant doses of 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles results in the loss of functionality in several regions of the cortex: medical prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulated cortex, posterior cingulated cortex and the basal forebrain. Our observation that 20 cGy of 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles is sufficient to impair the ability of rats to conduct attentional set-shifting raises the possibility that astronauts on prolonged deep space exploratory missions could subsequently develop deficits in executive function.
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Vol. 178 • No. 4