Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Douglas Currie has received funding from the Maine Space Grant Consortium Research Infrastructure Development (RID) Program to establish a new research focus on the toxicological effects of space radiation on the central nervous system. The project will allow students to be exposed to the field of radiation biology and interact with NASA scientists.
With recent changes in the focus for manned missions, specifically to Mars, NASA has the need to assess the risk of damage to the central nervous system (CNS) from space radiation. A mission to Mars would be many months long, exposing astronauts to much higher levels of cosmic radiation than on missions to the moon or the international space station. The toxic effects of such exposures on the CNS are not well understood and any disruptions that lead to altered cognitive or motor function could impact the outcome of the mission. This is an area of active concern to NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate who need a clearer understanding of the risks and mechanisms of radiation damage to the CNS in order to develop appropriate biological countermeasures.
The research will involve culturing neurons, exposing them to x-ray radiation, and quantifying the impact on multiple parameters of neuron morphology and function. Initially, networks of neurons will be exposed to a range of x-ray doses and the effects on cell morphology quantified. Electrophysiological techniques and multi-electrode arrays will also be used to quantify the levels of electrical activity before and after irradiation to establish the effects on electrical activity. These assays will be combined to yield a clearer picture of the effects on neuron activity and connectivity. The goal is to assist NASA in assessing the risks associated with nervous system exposure to radiation and in developing viable countermeasures/remediation.