NYMC Faculty Publications

Life-long Brain Compensatory Responses to Galactic Cosmic Radiation Exposure

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Scientific Reports

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Cell Biology and Anatomy


Galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) composed of high-energy, heavy particles (HZE) poses potentially serious hazards to long-duration crewed missions in deep space beyond earth's magnetosphere, including planned missions to Mars. Chronic effects of GCR exposure on brain structure and cognitive function are poorly understood, thereby limiting risk reduction and mitigation strategies to protect against sequelae from exposure during and after deep-space travel. Given the selective vulnerability of the hippocampus to neurotoxic insult and the importance of this brain region to learning and memory, we hypothesized that GCR-relevant HZE exposure may induce long-term alterations in adult hippocampal neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity, and hippocampal-dependent learning and memory. To test this hypothesis, we irradiated 3-month-old male and female mice with a single, whole-body dose of 10, 50, or 100 cGy 56Fe ions (600 MeV, 181 keV/μm) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Our data reveal complex, dynamic, time-dependent effects of HZE exposure on the hippocampus. Two months post exposure, neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity and learning were impaired compared to sham-irradiated, age-matched controls. By six months post-exposure, deficits in spatial learning were absent in irradiated mice, and synaptic potentiation was enhanced. Enhanced performance in spatial learning and facilitation of synaptic plasticity in irradiated mice persisted 12 months post-exposure, concomitant with a dramatic rebound in adult-born neurons. Synaptic plasticity and spatial learning remained enhanced 20 months post-exposure, indicating a life-long influence on plasticity and cognition from a single exposure to HZE in young adulthood. These findings suggest that GCR-exposure can persistently alter brain health and cognitive function during and after long-duration travel in deep space.