Radiation exposure from a number of terrestrial sources is associated with an increased risk for atherosclerosis. Recently, concern over whether exposure to cosmic radiation might pose a similar risk for astronauts has increased. To address this question, we examined the effect of 2 to 5 Gy iron ions (56Fe), a particularly damaging component of cosmic radiation, targeted to specific arterial sites in male apolipoprotein E-deficient (apoE−/−) mice. Radiation accelerated the development of atherosclerosis in irradiated portions of the aorta independent of any systemic effects on plasma lipid profiles or circulating leukocytes. Further, radiation exposure resulted in a more rapid progression of advanced aortic root lesions, characterized by larger necrotic cores associated with greater numbers of apoptotic macrophages and reduced lesional collagen compared to sham-treated mice. Intima media thickening of the carotid arteries was also exacerbated. Exposure to 56Fe ions can therefore accelerate the development of atherosclerotic lesions and promote their progression to an advanced stage characterized by compositional changes indicative of increased thrombogenicity and instability. We conclude that the potential consequences of radiation exposure for astronauts on prolonged deep-space missions are a major concern. Knowledge gained from further studies with animal models should lead to a better understanding of the pathophysiological effects of accelerated ion radiation to better estimate atherogenic risk and develop appropriate countermeasures to mitigate its damaging effects.

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