Astronauts on deep space missions will be required to work more autonomously than on previous missions, and thus their ability to perform executive functions could be critical to mission success. One of the most common measures of executive function in humans is the ability to perform attentional set shifting, which requires contributions from working memory, discrimination, reversal learning, attentional set shifting and attention. Rodent attentional set shifting assays require rats to form an association between the presence of the food reward and an associative cue, which is either the digging media or the scent that is placed in the bowl; by altering the combination of scent and digging media, progressively more complex cognitive processes can be tested. In this study, we have determined the effect that exposure to 5–20 cGy of 600 MeV/n 28Si particles has on the ability of male retired breeder Wistar rats to perform attentional set shifting at three months postirradiation. All doses of Si resulted in a significant impairment in the ability of the rats to perform the first and most simple step of the ATSET assay, the simple discrimination (SD) task. If astronauts were to experience HZE-induced SD impairments, they would be unable to identify key factors to successfully resolve a situation. Performance in at least one other component of the ATSET test was impaired at all doses studied, however, these varied according to the dose. Compared with our previous studies using 1 GeV/n 56Fe and 48Ti particles, 600 MeV/n 28Si ions impaired attentional set-shifting performance at lower doses than the heavier ions. However, when the effect of isofluences of the three HZE ions were compared, there were no significant differences in the severity of the impaired performance; there were, however, ion-specific decrements in the ability of rats to perform within the various stages of the test. This study further supports the notion that “mission-relevant” doses of HZE particles (<20 cGy) can impair certain aspects of attentional set-shifting performance in retired breeder rats, but there may be some ion-specific changes in the specific cognitive domains impaired.
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Vol. 189 • No. 3