Of the many perils associated with deep space travel to Mars, neurocognitive complications associated with cosmic radiation exposure are of particular concern. Despite these realizations, whether and how realistic doses of cosmic radiation cause cognitive deficits and neuronal circuitry alterations several months after exposure remains unclear. In addition, even less is known about the temporal progression of cosmic radiation-induced changes transpiring over the duration of a time period commensurate with a flight to Mars. Here we show that rodents exposed to the second most prevalent radiation type in space (i.e. helium ions) at low, realistic doses, exhibit significant hippocampal and cortical based cognitive decrements lasting 1 year after exposure. Cosmic-radiation-induced impairments in spatial, episodic and recognition memory were temporally coincident with deficits in cognitive flexibility and reduced rates of fear extinction, elevated anxiety and depression like behavior. At the circuit level, irradiation caused significant changes in the intrinsic properties (resting membrane potential, input resistance) of principal cells in the perirhinal cortex, a region of the brain implicated by our cognitive studies. Irradiation also resulted in persistent decreases in the frequency and amplitude of the spontaneous excitatory postsynaptic currents in principal cells of the perirhinal cortex, as well as a reduction in the functional connectivity between the CA1 of the hippocampus and the perirhinal cortex. Finally, increased numbers of activated microglia revealed significant elevations in neuroinflammation in the perirhinal cortex, in agreement with the persistent nature of the perturbations in key neuronal networks after cosmic radiation exposure. These data provide new insights into cosmic radiation exposure, and reveal that even sparsely ionizing particles can disrupt the neural circuitry of the brain to compromise cognitive function over surprisingly protracted post-irradiation intervals.
Keywords: Cosmic radiation; Hippocampal-cortical connectivity; Neuroinflammation; Radiation-induced cognitive dysfunction.
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