As NASA prepares for its ambitious Artemis missions, including crewed lunar and interplanetary journeys, scientists are delving into the effects of space travel on human health. Recent NASA-funded research has shed light on the potential impact of galactic cosmic radiation and microgravity on erectile function, emphasizing the importance of closely monitoring sexual health in astronauts returning to Earth.
The study, conducted by researchers from Florida State University, focused on the consequences of exposure to high levels of galactic cosmic radiation, which includes energetic particles from events beyond the solar system like supernova explosions. On Earth, we are shielded from cosmic radiation by our planet’s magnetosphere. However, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) receive artificial shielding but still experience radiation exposure equivalent to a year’s worth on Earth within just a week.
In the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon and eventually Mars, astronauts will face higher radiation levels, posing potential health risks. To better understand these risks, the research team investigated the impact of galactic cosmic radiation and microgravity on erectile function before these missions.
The study employed 86 adult male Fisher-344 rats as subjects, and while the results are not directly applicable to humans, they offer valuable insights. The rats were exposed to simulated microgravity and simulated galactic cosmic rays at the NASA-operated Space Radiation Laboratory in New York.
After a year of exposure, the researchers analyzed the rats’ tissues and made significant findings. Exposure to even low levels of cosmic rays resulted in an increase in oxidative stress, which can lead to cellular, protein, and DNA damage. Oxidative stress is linked to aging and various health conditions, including diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Importantly, oxidative stress has been associated with erectile dysfunction, as it can damage the artery that supplies blood to erectile tissue. Microgravity also had a negative impact on erectile function, although it was less pronounced than that of cosmic rays.
The study suggests that treatment with specific antioxidants could help improve the function of tissues exposed to cosmic rays. While the adverse effects of galactic cosmic radiation proved long-lasting, the researchers identified potential treatments that could alleviate erectile dysfunction in astronauts.
These findings emphasize the need for comprehensive health monitoring and potential interventions to ensure the well-being of astronauts during and after extended space missions. As humanity ventures into deeper space, understanding and mitigating the health risks associated with cosmic radiation and microgravity will be crucial for the success of future space exploration endeavors.
The research was published in the Federation of American Science for Experimental Biology (FASEB) journal on November 22, 2023.