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NASA awards grant to LSUHS professor

LSU Health Shreveport
Published 8:00 a.m. CT March 18, 2021


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Research Notebook is a recurring series highlighting research activities at LSU Health Shreveport. Today’s notebook focuses on the research efforts of LSUHS scientists working with NASA to evaluate the impact of space radiation on the human brain. 

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Biological and Physical Sciences Division’s Space Biology Program awarded Xiao-Hong Lu, PhD; assistant professor of pharmacology, toxicology and neuroscience at LSU Health Shreveport, a $750,000 grant to develop a novel genetic engineering technology to evaluate the impact of space radiation on the human brain.

Astronauts who travel to Mars or other deep space destinations will leave Earth’s protective cocoon, thereby becoming exposed to chronic cosmic radiation for years at a time. One of the most worrisome consequences of long-term radiation exposures is the adverse effects on the brain of deep space travelers.

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Lengthy exposures can potentially affect mood and critical decision making. Major concerns have been raised that deep space flight may also lead to long-lasting brain injury or late-onset neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease.

Lu’s research team will use the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven National Laboratory to simulate cosmic radiation in space vehicles and on the Martian surface.

Using NASA’s Gene Lab at Ames center, the project will determine how factors such as the space environment and biological sex affect the genetic material in brain cells. Consequently, the team’s discoveries may lead to a deeper understanding of age-related brain structure and function changes.

The project is a real tour de force collaboration with multiple LSU campuses, including co-investigators: Dr. Lynn Harrison, professor of molecular and cellular physiology at LSU Health Shreveport; Dr. Jeffery Chancellor, assistant professor at LSU Baton Rouge; and Dr. Urska Cvek, professor at LSU Shreveport.

More: Research notebook: Gross lab at LSUHS receives grant for study of 3D genome regulation

The overarching goal of the project is to provide additional evidence that deep space travel poses a real and unique threat to the integrity of the brain. The realization of the basic mechanisms of how cosmic radiation can cause brain injury will lead to the development of biologic counter-measures to protect deep space travelers.

“A human mission to Mars is the next giant leap for humanity. The trip to Mars takes up to nine months one way with current propulsion technology,” Lu said. “All the researchers on the project hope to resolve the single biggest obstacle—understanding the radiation environment in space—so that humankind may travel beyond the Earth’s orbit to Mars.”

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