Astronauts on Mars missions risk dementia-like cognitive impairment

The efforts to send a manned mission to Mars are gearing up, but there is a new problem on the horizon. While the astronauts selected will have the honour of being the first humans to set foot on the Red Planet, they may also be some of the first to experience cognitive impairment from exposure to galactic cosmic rays.

This issue has been unearthed in a new study by scientists at UC Irvine, which found that the charged particles found in space, left over from past supernovas, can cause major damage to the central nervous system, resulting in impairment similar to that experienced by dementia sufferers.

The effects of this exposure takes several months to take hold, so has not been an issue for previous manned missions, but with the Mars mission set to take more than six months each way plus significant time spent on the Red Planet, the effects could be serious.

“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two to three-year round trip to Mars,” said Charles Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology in UCI’s School of Medicine.

“Performance decrements, memory deficits, and loss of awareness and focus during spaceflight may affect mission-critical activities, and exposure to these particles may have long-term adverse consequences to cognition throughout life.”

mars

The study, which is published today in the journal Science Advances, saw the scientists expose rats to charged particle irradiation at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The particles, fully ionized oxygen and titanium, are very similar to the highly energetic charged particles found in the galactic cosmic rays astronauts are exposed to once they leave the Earth’s atmosphere, and so provide a good model for the likely effects.

The irradiated rats suffered from brain inflammation, disrupting the way their neurons transmitted signals and resulting in them performing increasingly poorly on behavioural tasks.

Although in rats, the scientists believe the study provides a fair representation of the effects cosmic rays will have on astronauts, making this a worrying set of findings for those involved in planning manned Mars missions.

mars2

Images courtesy of NASA.

While NASA is currently undertaking a study of long-term spaceflight on the International Space Station, the astronauts there are largely protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere.

This means they are unlikely to be affected by such particles, which is why the agency drafted Limoli and his team in to investigate this issue.

However, having demonstrated the problem, Limoli is now faced with the challenge of figuring out how to protect astronauts from these charged particles.

One option is to put protective shielding around the areas the astronauts spend most of their time, in particular their sleeping areas, but he is skeptical about how effective this would be, saying “there is really no escaping them”.

The best option is likely to be to develop a protective medicine, but is very early days and far more work needs to be done for this to be effective.

“We are working on pharmacologic strategies involving compounds that scavenge free radicals and protect neurotransmission,” said Limoli.

“But these remain to be optimized and are under development.”

With such support for the eventual colonisation of Mars, we will need to wait and hope for a solution.

Wanted man captured thanks to facial recognition

A Chinese man who was wanted by police for “economic crimes” – which can include anything from tax evasion to the theft of public property – was arrested at a music concert in China after facial recognition technology spotted him inside the venue.

Source: Abacus News

SpaceX president commits to city-to-city rocket travel

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell has reiterated the company’s plans to make city-to-city travel — on Earth — using a rocket that’s designed for outer space a reality. Shotwell says the tech will be operational “within a decade, for sure.”

Source: Recode

Businessman wins battle with Google over 'right to be forgotten'

A businessman fighting for the "right to be forgotten" has won a UK High Court action against Google.. The businessman served six months’ in prison for “conspiracy to carry out surveillance”, and the judge agreed to an “appropriate delisting order".

Source: Press Gazette

UK launched cyber attack on Islamic State

The UK has conducted a "major offensive cyber campaign" against the Islamic State group, the director of the intelligence agency GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, has revealed. The operation hindered the group's ability to co-ordinate attacks and suppressed its propaganda.

Source: BBC

Goldman Sachs consider whether curing patients is bad for business

Goldman Sachs analysts have attempted to tackle the question of whether pioneering "gene therapy" treatment will be bad for business in the long run. "Is curing patients a sustainable business model?" analysts ask in a report entitled "The Genome Revolution."

Source: CNBC

Four-armed robot performing surgery in the UK

A £1.5m "robotic" surgeon, controlled using a computer console, is being used to shorten the time patients spend recovering after operations. The da Vinci Xi machine is the only one in the country being used for upper gastrointestinal surgery.

Source: BBC

Virgin Galactic rocket planes go past the speed of sound

Virgin Galactic completed its first powered flight in nearly four years when Richard Branson's space company launched its Unity spacecraft, which reached supersonic speeds before safely landing. “We’ve been working towards this moment for a long time,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in an email to Quartz.

Source: Quartz

Google employees protest being in "the business of war"

Thousands of Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that uses AI to interpret video imagery and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes. The letter, which is circulating inside Google, has garnered more than 3,100 signatures

Source: New York Times

Computer system transcribes words users “speak silently”

MIT researchers have developed a computer interface that transcribes words that the user verbalises internally but does not actually speak aloud. The wearable device picks up neuromuscular signals in the jaw and face that are triggered by internal verbalisations — saying words “in your head” — but are undetectable to the human eye.

Source: MIT News

Drones could be used to penalise bad farming

A report by a coalition of environmental campaigners is arguing squadrons of drones should be deployed to locate and penalise farmers who let soil run off their fields. Their report says drones can help to spot bad farming, which is said to cost more than £1.2bn a year by clogging rivers and contributing to floods.

Source: BBC

Californian company unveil space hotel

Orion Span, a California company, has unveiled its Aurora Station, a commercial space station that would house a luxury hotel. The idea is to put the craft in low-earth orbit, about 200 miles up, with a stay at the hotel likely to cost $9.5 million for a 12-day trip, but you can reserve a spot now with an $80,000 deposit.

UK mobile operators pay close to £1.4bn for 5G

An auction of frequencies for the next generation of mobile phone networks has raised £1.36bn, says regulator Ofcom. Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three all won the bandwidth needed for the future 5G mobile internet services, which are not expected to be launched until 2020.

Source: BBC