May 25, 2020
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*-- NASA simulates realistic galactic cosmic rays to study effects on astronaut health --*
Galactic cosmic rays are everywhere, but they're also elusive. They're hard to block and come in a variety of forms, making them quite difficult to study.
To keep astronauts and deep-space missions safe, NASA needs to better understand the health risks posed by all sorts of space radiation, including galactic cosmic rays. But instead of studying galactic cosmic rays in space, researchers at NASA are working to replicate the rays in the lab.
In a new study, published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers describe a new method for producing realistic galactic cosmic rays in the lab.
"This achievement marks a significant step forward and enables a new era of radiobiology research to accelerate our understanding and mitigation of health risks faced by astronauts during long duration exploration or interplanetary travel to Mars," researchers said in a press release.
Galactic cosmic rays are composed of high-energy protons and helium ions, as well as a mix of high-energy ions derived from everything from lithium to iron. When they collide with spacecraft and astronauts, they create a variety of particles.
The rays and the particles they produce can damage tissue, and scientists are concerned that prolonged exposure to galactic cosmic rays could harm the cardiovascular system and cause neurological disorders.
Scientists have previously tried to study galactic cosmic rays in the lab but have struggled to replicate the kinds of radiation found in space. One of the problems is that current beam technologies struggle to produce the kind of particle diversity unique to galactic cosmic rays.
For the new study, researchers used fast beam switching and updated controls systems technology to rapidly and repeatedly generate diverse combinations of multiple ion-energy beams.
As scientists wrote in their paper, the new simulator can generate a "spectrum of ion beams that approximates the primary and secondary [galactic cosmic radiation] field experienced at human organ locations within a deep space vehicle."
Researchers used their new beam technology to produce 33 sequential beams featuring four proton energies, four helium energies and five heavy ions of carbon, oxygen, silicon, titanium and iron.
Scientists have already begun exposing animal models to the simulated galactic cosmic radiation fields, with hopes of identifying the effects of these high-energy particles on organ tissue and gauge the risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders.
"Over the past 30 years, most research on understanding space radiation-induced health risks has been performed using acute exposures of mono-energetic single-ion beams. Now a mixed field of ions can be studied collectively in the same animal cohort, thereby drastically reducing the number of animals, husbandry, and research costs," scientists said.
*-- Scientists use ultrasonic mind control on monkeys --*
Scientists have for the first time directed the decision making of monkeys using remote, ultrasonic brain stimulation.
For the study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, researchers had a pair of macaque monkeys participate in a visual test designed to investigate basic decision making.
The monkeys were made to look at a target at the center of a screen before being presented with a second and third target to the left and right sides of the screen, one following the other.
Typically, macaques and other monkeys glance at the target that appears first, but researchers were able to alter the tendency by directing low-intensity ultrasound waves
at the frontal eye fields of the two monkeys, the brain region that controls eye movement.
"Brief, low-intensity ultrasound pulses delivered non-invasively into specific brain regions of macaque monkeys influenced their decisions regarding which target to choose," researchers wrote . "The effects were substantial, leading to around a 2:1 bias in choices compared to the default balanced proportion."
Each of the ultrasonic pulses lasted 300 milliseconds and was applied just before the first secondary target appeared on the sides of the screen. The pulses cause brain tissue to vibrate and neurons to fire, altering the neuronal sequences in the targeted brain region.
When researchers directed ultrasonic waves on the monkey's motor cortex, which doesn't control the eye movements or decision making of monkeys, the visual choices of the two monkeys were unaffected.
Though a lot more testing of the technology and its potential is necessary, scientists estimate ultrasonic brain manipulation could eventually be used to study and treat decision-making disorders like addiction in humans.
"There are ... tantalizing opportunities to apply ultrasonic neuromodulation to non-invasively modulate choice behavior in humans, with first applications aimed at determining the set of circuits involved in a given disorder in a given individual," researchers wrote.