During the planned missions to Mars, astronauts will be faced with many potential health hazards including prolonged exposure to space radiation. Ground-based studies have shown that exposure to space radiation impairs the performance of male rats in cognitive flexibility tasks which involve processes that are essential to rapidly and efficiently adapting to different situations. However, there is presently a paucity of information on the effects of space radiation on cognitive flexibility in female rodents. This study has determined the impact that exposure to a low (10 cGy) dose of ions from the simplified 5-ion galactic cosmic ray simulation [https://www.bnl.gov/nsrl/userguide/SimGCRSim.php (07/2023)] (GCRSim) beam or 250 MeV/n 4He ions has on the ability of female Wistar rats to perform in constrained [attentional set shifting (ATSET)] and unconstrained cognitive flexibility (UCFlex) tasks. Female rats exposed to GCRSim exhibited multiple decrements in ATSET performance. Firstly, GCRSim exposure impaired performance in the compound discrimination (CD) stage of the ATSET task. While the ability of rats to identify the rewarded cue was not compromised, the time the rats required to do so significantly increased. Secondly, both 4He and GCRSim exposure reduced the ability of rats to reach criterion in the compound discrimination reversal (CDR) stage. Approximately 20% of the irradiated rats were unable to complete the CDR task; furthermore, the irradiated rats that did reach criterion took more attempts to do so than did the sham-treated animals. Radiation exposure also altered the magnitude and/or nature of practice effects. A comparison of performance metrics from the pre-screen and post-exposure ATSET task revealed that while the sham-treated rats completed the post-exposure CD stage of the ATSET task in 30% less time than for completion of the pre-screen ATSET task, the irradiated rats took 30–50% longer to do so. Similarly, while sham-treated rats completed the CDR stage in ∼10% fewer attempts in the post-exposure task compared to the pre-screen task, in contrast, the 4He- and GCRSim-exposed cohorts took more (∼2-fold) attempts to reach criterion in the post-exposure task than in the pre-screen task. In conclusion, this study demonstrates that female rats are susceptible to radiation-induced loss of performance in the constrained ATSET cognitive flexibility task. Moreover, exposure to radiation leads to multiple performance decrements, including loss of practice effects, an increase in anterograde interference and reduced ability or unwillingness to switch attention. Should similar effects occur in humans, astronauts may have a compromised ability to perform complex tasks.

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