Exposure to galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) is considered to be a potential health risk in long-term space travel, and it represents a significant risk to the central nervous system (CNS). The most harmful component of GCR is the HZE [high-mass, highly charged (Z), high-energy] particles, e.g. 56Fe. In previous ground-based experiments, exposure to high doses of HZE-particle radiation induced pronounced deficits in hippocampus-dependent learning and memory in rodents. Recent data suggest that glutamatergic transmission in hippocampal synaptosomes is impaired after low (60 cGy) doses of 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles, which could lead to impairment of hippocampus-dependent spatial memory. To assess the effects of mission-relevant (20–60 cGy) doses of 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles on hippocampus-dependent spatial memory, male Wistar rats either received sham treatment or were irradiated and tested 3 months later in the Barnes maze test. Compared to the controls, rats that received 20, 40 and 60 cGy 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles showed significant impairments in their ability to locate the escape box in the Barnes maze, which was manifested by progressively increasing escape latency times over the 3 days of testing. However, this increase was not due to a lack of motivation of the rats to escape, because the total number of head pokes (and especially incorrect head pokes) remained constant over the test period. Given that rats exposed to X rays did not exhibit spatial memory impairments until >10 Gy was delivered, the RBE for 1 GeV/u 56Fe-particle-induced hippocampal spatial memory impairment is ∼50. These data demonstrate that mission-relevant doses of 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles can result in severe deficits in hippocampus-dependent neurocognitive tasks, and the extreme sensitivity of these processes to 1 GeV/u 56Fe particles must arise due to the perturbation of multiple processes in addition to killing neuronal cells.

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